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Most people experience some problem or pain in their back in their lifetime. Common symptoms can be a feeling of tension, aching or stiffness of the back. Common causes of the pain can be lifting incorrectly, poor posture or bending awkwardly.
Fortunately, back pain usually resolves itself within three months and does not normally indicate a serious underlying condition. Successful treatment usually involves taking analgesic drugs for the pain and maintaining mobility whilst ensuring a suitable back support is in place.
In general, pain is caused by a minor injury or strain, a sprain or a nerve problem. It can be something simple and fairly trivial that results in back pain or it could be a long term issue. Once the pain itself has been treated, whether this is through medication, physiotherapy or a form of back support, it’s important to look at what caused the issue in the first place. In many cases this can be addressed successfully in order to prevent the pain reoccurring: for example, paying more attention on how to sit at a desk or the way in which you lift and carry objects.
Some of the more common reasons for back pain are:
Not taking care when moving heavy objects
Bad posture when sitting or driving
Bending in the wrong way
Twisting or over-stretching the back
Overuse of the back when participating in sports
The pain can also be a result of a medical problem, such as:
Ankylosing spondylitis (a form of chronic arthritis)
Whatever the reason for pain in the back, there are some factors that will put you more at risk of developing a problem. Eliminating or reducing these risk factors may not stop the pain occurring altogether; however it could be that the degree of pain you experience can be lessened and the recovery period shortened.
The main risk factors for back pain include:
Being overweight, which leads to the spine being put under too much pressure
Smoking, as this can cause damage to the tissue within the back (or simply because smokers are often unhealthier in general than the rest of the population)
Pregnant women can put their back under extra strain because of the additional weight
Some medicines, such as corticosteroids, can weaken the bones if used for long periods of time
If you are under a great deal of stress this can lead to tension building up in the muscles
People who are depressed are more likely to put on weight, which will make the pain worse
Although there are many causes for back pain, in some cases there is no obvious reason. Whatever the root cause of the problem, there are a number of treatment options available. These will depend on the severity of the pain and can range from the use of painkillers and wearing a back support through to a bespoke exercise programme and surgery.
Many instances of back pain are due to short term ailments which can be treated in a variety of simple ways. Short term pain should not last more than 6 weeks and not be recurring. Over the counter painkillers containing paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used for pain relief and muscle relaxants or anti-inflammatory medications may also alleviate the symptoms. Back pain can also be treated by providing adequate back support and a back brace is a common choice for short term sufferers. Inadequate back support is often the cause of short term pain and many sufferers find that by simply adapting their lifestyle they become pain free.
Hot and cold packs are also common pain relief treatments and a hot water bottle or ice pack placed strategically can ease the pain. Adjusting your sleeping position can also take the pressure off a sore back, and by putting a pillow underneath your knees you can maintain the back’s natural curve and ease pain temporarily.
Muscle tension can cause pain to be exacerbated, so relaxation is a vial aspect of pain relief. A sore back can be debilitating and stressful, but it has been proven that muscle tension can further affect pain and increase its intensity. Exercise significantly lowers stress levels and experts now agree that in most cases those who remain active through pain are likely to recover more quickly. Regular exercise also contributes to a healthier back and if your pain is caused by poor posture, stress or obesity then being more active will have additional benefits.
Chronic back pain is pain that has lasted for longer than 6 weeks and there are a variety of treatments that can be undertaken to address this type of ailment.
Exercise is a common remedy for long term pain and a qualified trainer may be needed to ensure that you are strengthening the correct muscles and stretching correctly. In addition to strengthening the back, manual therapy may be needed and several sessions with a chiropractor, physiotherapist or osteopath will be hugely beneficial.
The Alexander technique of eliminating unnecessary tension from the body is also widely used and acupuncture has shown positive results in patients suffering from pain for many years. A more chemical option is a nerve root block whereby steroid or anaesthetic is injected into the spinal column, or facet joint injections which are injected into the joints that connect the vertebrae. Anti-depressants may be prescribed as they also offer relief for persistent pain and counselling may be an option if you need additional help coping. Surgery may also be an option, depending on the severity of the pain and the ability of a surgeon to remove or fix the cause.
For those who suffer from back pain there are several courses of action, but ensuring you have adequate back support is always one of the first issues that should be addressed. In addition to back support there are other treatments such as low level laser therapy, ultrasound, TENS, lumbar supports and traction that can help alleviate, cure or prevent back pain.
People who are overweight are more likely to suffer from back pain than people who are a healthy weight because carrying a lot of weight on the upper body puts stress on your lower back. In addition, wearing high heels can put strain on your back. If you need to spend a lot of time standing, wear flat shoes with properly cushioned soles and try to maintain a good posture at all times.
When you are lifting heavy objects, make sure you get a proper grip, and lift from your legs rather than your back. Do not bend over, and do not strain to lift an object heavier than you can manage. If you are not certain that you can lift the weight, ask someone to help you. For smaller loads, try to keep the weight close to your body, and keep your head up at all times.
If you are moving heavy objects long distances, try to push the weight across the floor instead of pulling it. Make sure that the weight is distributed evenly, so that you don't place undue stress on one side of your body. It is better to carry an evenly loaded backpack than bags of shopping in each hand.
If you have a desk job or any other job that involves sitting for a long time, such as driving, make sure that you maintain good posture. Sit upright, with your knees and hips level and your feet flat on the floor. Try not to make repetitive twisting motions or lean in awkward directions. In addition, take regular breaks to get up and walk around.
A back support can help you to go about your normal daily activities while you are suffering from acute pain, but you should not ignore back pain when it occurs. In many cases, pain is caused by tension, stress or superficial muscle damage, but you could be suffering from serious tissue damage, weakened bones or other underlying conditions. Your doctor can perform tests to determine the cause of your pain and the best way to cure it and prevent it from recurring.
Mild back pain can respond well to exercise. Try to make exercise enjoyable to stave off boredom, as you will need to think about following a long term regime to alleviate back pain.
Yoga in particular can be a useful form of exercise for people suffering from a number of ailments, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stress, depression, lumbar pain and other aches. Pilates is a similar form of low impact activity that can ease back pain.
The Alexander technique is a form of posture manipulation that is often recommended to sufferers of back pain in the long term, retraining the way the body holds itself to provide support of the back. However, the effectiveness of the technique is not universally accepted.
Look for activities that build up not only your flexibility and strength but also your stamina. Low impact exercises such as jogging, walking, cycling, swimming, dancing and hydrotherapy are all suitable for people with back problems. The key is to practice little and often and to continue a long term regime.
Start gently if you struggle and increase your effort gradually until you are comfortable exercising for up to 150 minutes per week. It may also be a good idea to consult your GP before embarking upon a new exercise programme.
Manual therapy can be useful adjunct to exercise for persistent pain. An osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist can provide this kind of treatment.
A manual therapist will examine the joints of your back and use massage or other manipulation to loosen joints where stiffness has taken hold and flexibility or mobility is severely impaired. Their qualifications mean they can also recommend a suitable exercise programme. Improvements to your condition should be noticeable within a few weeks.
If measures including exercise, back support, analgesia and manual therapy don't provide relief then it's time to visit a medical professional. Back pain does respond to treatment but it can take some determined effort to work out the most appropriate course of action.