Back pain is a common cause of disability and most people will experience some degree of back pain during their lives. About 8 out of 10 people have one or more bouts of back pain. In most cases it is not due to a serious disease or a serious back problem and the exact cause is not clear. Most acute back pain results from injury to the muscles, ligaments, joints or discs. The usual advice is to keep active and to do normal activities as much as possible without irritating the problem.
The most common area of the back affected by pain is the lower back. The lower back supports the weight of the upper body and provides mobility for all our everyday movements such as bending and twisting. Muscles in the lower back are responsible for flexing and rotating the hips while walking, as well as supporting the spinal column. Nerves in the lower back supply sensation and power to the pelvis, legs and feet.
Diagnosis of back pain
Your GP or physiotherapist will usually be able to diagnose lower back pain from your symptoms and by carrying out an examination. If your pain is causing you difficulties in carrying out activities of daily living, affecting your work or disturbing your sleep, the advice is to seek advice from a healthcare professional.
Self-help for back pain
There are a number of things you can do to relieve back pain
- Stay active and continue your daily activities as normally as you can. However, take care when lifting or twisting your back. Try to avoid sitting for long periods.
- Do exercises and stretching. See your physiotherapist for advice on safe and effective exercises. Your physiotherapist can also provide you with ‘hands on’ therapy, such as massage and spinal manipulation.
- Take over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (such as Ibuprofen) if you need pain relief. Paracetamol alone probably won’t be very effective for back pain. Remember, you should only take Ibuprofen for a short time, and not for long-term back pain.
Prevention of back pain
If you look after your back, you can greatly reduce your risk of getting back pain. The following things can help:
- Regular exercise. Walking, swimming or using an exercise bike are all things you can do even if your back feels a bit sore.
- Be careful when lifting heavy objects. Bend your knees and use your legs.
- Keep a good posture. If you work at a desk or computer, make sure desk, chair and computer screen are set up correctly.
- Avoid prolonged sitting, standing or lying down whilst awake.
Cauda equina syndrome is a rare but serious type of nerve root problem that affects the lower back. If you have back pain along with numbness in the saddle area, problems with bladder or bowel functions and weakness in one or both legs, you should seek immediate medical attention.