About 80 per cent of adults in the UK will experience back pain at least once in their lifetime. Almost half will experience it for a minimum of 24 hours at least once a year. It can be triggered by a number of different things, including poor posture, incorrect lifting or bending awkwardly. It is not usually an indication of a serious condition and in about 90 per cent of cases it will improve in a matter of days, weeks or sometimes months. A small number, around 7 per cent, of people will suffer long term or recurrent back pain.
Back pain is responsible for a staggering 5 million sick days in the UK each year and is the second most common reason for long term sick leave.
Different types of back pain
The most common type of back pain is Lumbago or lower back pain. However, people can experience back pain in any part of their spine, from the hips all the way up to the neck.
Diseases and injuries known to cause back pain include:
- Ankylosing Spondylitis: Causes pain and stiffness for the sufferer, usually in the lower back and pelvis. It is a long term condition.
- Frozen Shoulder: Inflammation causing stiffness and pain in and around the shoulder.
- Whiplash: A neck injury, usually the result of a car accident or similar sudden impact.
- Sciatica: Pain, tingling and numbness caused by compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve.
- Slipped Disc: A damaged spinal disc may irritate the nerves causing pain.
For many, however, doctors are unable to identify a specific reason for their back pain. This is known as non-specific back pain.
Short term back pain
Back pain usually recedes of its own accord without any medical intervention. Those who have been suffering for just a few days or weeks can improve symptoms or reduce recovery time by:
- Applying heat or ice. Compression packs can be purchased from a pharmacy.
- Staying active and if possible, carrying on with a regular routine.
- If necessary, over the counter pain medications such as ibuprofen and paracetamol can help.
Remain as positive as you can. While this is difficult when suffering any sort of pain or discomfort, the more optimistic and cheerful you can be, the faster you are likely to recover.
Long term back pain
If after about six weeks there is no improvement, it might be time to visit the GP. They will be able to offer advice about the different treatments which may be available. These might include:
- Advice and support from a pain clinic.
- Stronger analgesics.
- Manual therapy, such as osteopathy, chiropractic or physiotherapy.
- Specific exercises to improve posture and strengthen muscles.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or another type of counselling.
Invasive treatments including surgery are usually considered only as a very last resort.
Arthritis Research UK have put together a great guide on the different types of back pain and how to manage it effectively.
Is it serious?
In most cases back pain is not an indication of a serious issue. However, urgent medical attention may be required if back pain is accompanied by any of the following:
- Weight loss which is unexplained.
- A fever.
- Deformity or swelling of the spine.
- Pain which is not relieved by lying down and/or is worse at night time.
- Chest pain.
- Incontinence or urinary retention.
- Loss of bowel control.
- Numbness around the back passage, buttocks or genitals.
Seek urgent medical attention if the pain began following a car accident or similar incident.
Prevention of back pain
Your back health can be affected by many different things, but particularly how you lift, lie, stand, sit and move around. If your muscles are weak this can also be a contributing factor.
Exercising regularly is one of the best ways to strengthen the muscles and avoid back pain. Walking, swimming, yoga and Pilates are particularly helpful and are also low impact.
Two decades ago the advice for those suffering from back pain was to rest. However, subsequent research suggests that inactivity can actually worsen the condition. Although the temptation is to go to bed and move around as little as possible, this can actually lead to further reduced mobility and prolonged pain.
Avoid sedentary behaviour and continue with your day to day activities. If possible, walk to the local shop or post box instead of driving, park further away from the supermarket and take part in activities such as gardening and golf. Mild pain and discomfort can be treated with over the counter pain remedies. Your GP or pharmacist can advise as to which are the most appropriate for you.
With a focus on flexibility, strength and breathing, yoga is an ancient discipline known to boost mental and physical well-being. Originating in India some 5,000 years ago, the main aspects of yoga are breathing and a variety of carefully controlled postures. There are a range of different types of yoga, such as Lyengar, Sivananda and Ashtanga. Some are more physically demanding than others.
The benefits of yoga are far-reaching and it is considered a very safe and effective method of improving co-ordination, balance, flexibility and strength. There is also evidence to suggest that regular participation is beneficial for conditions such as depression, stress, high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as those with a variety of aches and pains, including mild back pain.
The great news is that you are never too old to begin practising yoga. It can be enjoyed by everyone, from children, to the elderly. There are even chair based classes! Look for a class which matches your level of fitness.
The main aim of Pilates is to strengthen the body and improve well-being and general fitness. There is an emphasis on increasing core fitness. Pilates may involve the use of specialist equipment, such as the Wunda Chair, the Cadillac and the Reformer, but is also done on a simple mat.
Joseph Pilates developed the discipline. He believed that physical and mental health are closely related. Pilates has been influenced by a range of different disciplines, including boxing, wrestling and gymnastics.
Pilates is suitable for people of any age, fitness or ability. Classes vary in terms of intensity, from dynamic to very gentle. There is equipment to provide both support for beginners or those with medical conditions and resistance for the more advanced participant. As with any new exercise programme, it is a good idea to consult your GP or other health professional involved in your care before commencing a Pilates programme.
As with Yoga, the benefits of Pilates are considerable. Regular Pilates exercises can improve muscle tone, balance, posture and joint mobility. It can also reduce tension and stress, as well as compliment training in other disciplines such as dance and gymnastics.
There is evidence to suggest that Pilates can improve non-specific back pain. Each exercise should be carefully tailored to each person and their individual health needs.
Other types of exercises
If you’re not into either yoga or pilates then there are other exercises available including:
- Bottom to heel stretches: Designed to stretch and mobile the spine.
- Knee rolls: Like with the bottom to heel stretches the manoeuvre is designed to mobilise the spine.
- Back extensions: This stretching mobilises the spine backwards.
- Deep abdominal strengthening: Helps to strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine to give you a stronger core.
- Pelvic tilts: Helps to strengthen the lower back.
You can find out more about these on the NHS Live Well pages.
Walking is probably the easiest way to become more active. It is free, simple and a great way to lose weight and improve health and well-being. It has been shown to cut the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, asthma and other chronic illnesses. Walking is beneficial for those with back pain as it is a low impact activity which can also help to improve stamina and endurance.
Low Impact Exercises
Other low impact exercises which can help those with back pain include cycling, swimming, dancing, tai chi, bowls and aqua aerobics. Exercise programmes are only really effective if they are carried out regularly and on a long term basis. Experts recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, including two sessions of strengthening activities, such as yoga or Pilates.