What is back pain?
Back pain is very common and affects approximately 80% of the population at some point in their lives
What are the causes of back pain?
For most people with back pain, there isn’t any specific, underlying problem that can be identified as the cause of the pain. However, there are a number of factors that can increase your risk of developing back pain, or aggravate it once you have it. These include:
- Standing, sitting or bending down for long periods
- Lifting, carrying, pushing or pulling loads that are too heavy, or going about these tasks in the wrong way
- Having a trip or a fall
- Being stressed or anxious
- Being overweight
- Having poor posture
When to contact your doctor?
You should see your general physician as soon as possible, and if you have:
- A fever (high temperature)
- Redness or swelling on your back
- Pain down your legs and below your knees
- Numbness or weakness in one or both legs or around your buttocks
- Loss of bladder or bowel control (incontinence)
- Constant pain, particularly at night
- Pain that is getting much worse and is spreading up your spine
These symptoms are known as red flags. It’s important to seek medical help to ensure you don’t have a more serious, underlying cause for your back pain.
How is back pain diagnosed?
Your general physician will usually be able to diagnose your back pain from your symptoms and there will be no need for further tests. If, however, your symptoms don’t improve after a few weeks, your doctor may refer you to a back clinic to get:
- An X-ray
- A CT scan (a test that uses X-ray equipment and computer software to create pictures of the inside of your body)
- An MRI scan (a test that uses magnets and radiowaves to produce images of the inside of the body)
- Blood tests
What is the treatment for back pain?
- Self-help – Stay active and continue your daily activities as normally as you can. Bed rest may actually make lower back pain worse, so try to limit the time you spend resting to a minimum. Apply hot or cold packs to the affected area. Don’t apply ice directly to your skin as it can damage your skin
- Medicines – Taking an over-the-counter painkiller (such as aspirin or paracetamol) or anti-inflammatory medicine (such as ibuprofen) is often enough to relieve acute lower back pain. You can also use creams, lotions and gels that contain painkillers or anti-inflammatory ingredients. Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine. Always ask your doctor for advice
- Physical therapies – Exercises, posture advice, massage, and techniques known as spinal mobilization and spinal manipulation. Treatment courses usually last about 6 to 12 weeks. Ask your physiotherapist for advice
- Surgery – Back pain, even if it’s chronic, can usually be treated or managed successfully, but about one in 10 people have ongoing problems. Back surgery is really only considered as a last resort if the pain is related to a specific cause