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Back pain: what you need to know

Lady standing in woods with beige fitness top. Looking straight at camera
Back pain is very common but can have a serious impact on your life. Be it lower back pain or upper, this guide provides all you need to know on back pain.

Whether you feel occasional twinges or something more serious, this guide will help you understand why back pain happens and how to manage it

Written by Charlotte Haigh on March 4, 2019 Reviewed by Sammy Margo on March 7, 2019

From stiffness to sciatica, back pain is extremely common – eight out of 10 of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives.1 Usually, it isn’t serious and will get better within a few weeks. However, sometimes it can have a real impact on your life: back pain is the largest single cause of disability in the UK.2 But you don’t have to suffer in silence.

What does ‘back pain’ mean?

‘Back pain’, also known as lumbago, means any ache or pain affecting any part of the back – from muscle ache to shooting pains – and pain that refers down one leg, too.3 It can also involve:4
  • stiffness
  • numbness, which – in more serious cases – may affect your legs or genital area
  • inflammation and swelling
  • weight loss
  • fever

So, what actually causes the pain? Your back is made up of muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones, with discs between the segments of the spine that provide cushioning. Anything that goes wrong with any of these parts – such as a strained muscle or injury – can result in pain, although in many cases it’s not possible to pinpoint an exact cause.5

Common causes of back pain

There are some common triggers for backache and back pain, including:

  • Poor posture and movement habits – this may be the most common cause, thanks to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Sitting down for too long, straining your neck to look at a computer and sleeping on an unsupportive mattress can all trigger back pain.6
  • Structural problems – this refers to anything affecting the structure of the back, and can include osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. A bulging or ruptured disc is another common structural problem that can lead to pain.7
  • Strain and injury – an awkward movement or repeatedly lifting something too heavy can often strain muscles or ligaments, cause muscle spasm or tension, or even damage discs.8

Who gets back pain?

You’re more likely to experience back pain if you:9
  • are over 30 
  • don’t exercise 
  • are overweight 
  • don’t lift heavy loads properly 
  • have depression or anxiety 
  • smoke

Can you prevent back pain?

Sometimes, but not always. Here’s what you can do to look after your back:10,11

  • take regular exercise – try low-impact aerobic activities, like walking, cycling and yoga, to improve your back muscle strength
  • strengthen your core muscles – it’s important that your abdominal and back muscles are strong for a healthy back; if you’re prone to back pain, ask your GP to refer you to, or make an appointment with, a chartered physiotherapist for specific back exercises
  • avoid sitting for too long, and be mindful of your posture
  • stay a healthy weight – being overweight could strain your back muscles
  • stop smoking – smoking reduces blood flow to the spine and could prevent healing

Tips for treating back pain

Most of the time, back pain gets better on its own and you may not even need to see your GP.12 To ease the pain and help your back recover more quickly, try the following tips:

Stay active – while doctors once thought it was best to rest with back pain, it’s now considered much better to keep moving. You should continue to go about your everyday activities, such as walking to the shops, doing some light housework or gardening, or a bit of gentle DIY.13

Consider some herbal help – a 2014 Cochrane Review of evidence for herbs for lower back pain found there is some evidence that alternative treatments can help with lower back pain, although more research is needed. The review found taking 60mg daily of devil’s claw or 240mg daily of willow bark had a positive effect on back pain.14

Apply hot or cold compresses – these can ease pain, according to the NHS, and talk to your pharmacist or GP about taking painkillers.15

Up your vitamin D intake Indian researchers recently discovered those with low vitamin D levels also suffered from chronic low back pain. It’s thought the vitamin may have a role to play in reducing the immune system’s inflammatory response.

Limit your time on mobile devices Whenever you use gadgets like tablets or smartphones, your neck and spine are bending forwards. Too much screen time could also be interrupting your body clock, leading to insomnia.

De-clutter your handbag Carrying heavy bags on one side of your body can throw the spine out of alignment. Switch to a rucksack or cross-body bag, and give your handbag a regular clear out.

Ditch the high heels There’s strong research to show that wearing high heels every day can contribute to back problems over time. Alternate between flats and mid-heels, and keep the killer heels for nights out.

Try complementary therapies A study published in the British Medical Journal found practicing the Alexander Technique could help relieve back pain, while NICE – the government body that approves medicines in the UK – now recommends acupuncture for non-specific lower back pain.

When to see your doctor

See your GP if your pain doesn’t get better after a few weeks or worsens, or it gets in the way of daily life. You may be referred to a specialist or a chartered physiotherapist, or may need to see another practitioner, such as an osteopath.16 Rarely, back pain can be a sign of a more serious condition that needs urgent attention. See your GP immediately or call 111 straight away if you have back pain and any of the following symptoms:17

See your doctor when

  • problems urinating
  • unexplained weight loss
  • fever
  • chest pain
  • back pain that starts after an accident
  • a swelling in your back

Sources

1. NHS. Back pain – overview. 
4. Christian Nordqvist. Medical News Today. What is causing this pain in my back?
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