Back pain is very common and will affect most people at some stage in their lives.
Back pain is not usually caused by a condition, and is often bought on by bad posture whilst sitting or standing, incorrect lifting or bending awkwardly.
Although some people experience long term or recurring back pain, in the majority of cases, back pain will get better after a few weeks or months.
Backs are complex structures made up of many different bones, muscles, nerves and joints. This often makes it difficult to identify the exact cause of back pain.
Most cases of back pain are caused by minor sprains, strains, injuries or compressed or irritated nerves, and are triggered by everyday activities at home and work, or develop gradually over time. Sometimes back pain can even develop suddenly for no apparent reason, meaning you may wake up one morning and have no idea of what caused it.
Possible causes of back pain include:
- bending awkwardly or bending for long periods of time
- manual handling – lifting, carrying, pulling or pushing heavy objects
- slouching in chairs
- driving or sitting in a hunched position
- muscle overuse – often during sports or through repetitive movements (repetitive strain injury)
The chances of developing back pain can be increased by certain lifestyle factors. These include:
- being overweight (extra weight places extra pressure on the spine)
- being pregnant (the extra weight of carrying a baby can also place extra pressure on the spine)
- smoking (can cause tissue damage in the back)
- long-term use of medication known to weaken bones
Although backache is most commonly experienced in the lower back (lumbago), it can be felt anywhere along the spine from your neck down to your hips.
There are various injuries and diseases that can cause back pain, these include:
- a slipped disc – when a damaged disc in the spine presses on a nerve
- whiplash – a neck injury bought on by sudden impact
- sciatica – compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve causing pain, numbness and tingling down one leg
- frozen shoulder – inflammation around the shoulder causing pain and stiffness
- ankylosing spondylitis – a long-term condition causing pain and stiffness around the area where the spine meets the pelvis
Non-specific back pain
Non-specific back pain is the term given by doctors to back pain that doesn’t have any obvious cause.
If your back pain still continues to persist after around six weeks you may wish to visit your GP who can advise about the treatments available.
- stronger painkillers
- exercise classes to improve posture and strengthen your back muscles
- manual therapy such as physiotherapy, chiropractic or osteopathy
- support and advice at a specialist pain clinic
If you experience any of the following symptoms alongside your back pain you will need to seek urgent medical attention:
- unexplained weight loss
- a swelling or deformity in your back
- back pain following an accident such as a car collision
- a high temperature
- pain in your chest
- a loss of bladder or bowel control
- persistent pain at night
- persistent pain that doesn’t ease after lying down
- an inability to pass urine
- numbness around your genitals, buttocks or back passage
Most cases of back pain will improve on their own and without any intervention. If you’ve only been experiencing back pain for a few days or weeks the advice below may help to relieve your symptoms and speed up your recovery:
- remain as active as possible, continuing with your daily routine and activities
- take painkillers such as paracetamol and anti-inflammatories like ibubrofen
- use hot and cold compression packs. These can be purchased from your local pharmacy or alternatively you can use bags of frozen vegetables and hot water bottles.
- stay positive! Although it may be difficult to remain cheerful, staying optimistic can help you to recover faster.
How you stand, sit, lie and lift can all affect your back health and whether you’re likely to develop back pain, it is therefore important to remember to:
- avoid placing too much pressure on your back
- exercise regularly. Walking and swimming are excellent for preventing back pain.
- take part in activities such as yoga or pilates to help improve your flexibility and strengthen your back muscles.