Back Pain - Causes, Prevention and Treatment

What is Back Pain?

Back pain, unfortunately, is very common and usually improves within a few weeks or months. Pain in the lower back (lumbago) is a particularly frequent condition, although it can be apparent anywhere through the spine – from the neck down to the hips. Often, the discomfort isn't caused by anything serious and will usually heal over time.

How Can You Prevent Back Pain?

There are things you can do to help relieve it during its recovery process, but sometimes the pain can last an extensive period of time or return after you may think it has gone. The following tips may help reduce your backache and speed up your recovery:

• Stay as active as possible and try to continue your daily routine as normal – this is one of the most important things you can do, as being inactive for long periods can worsen the pain

• Try exercises and stretches for back pain; other activities such as walking, swimming and may also be helpful

• Take anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen – remember to check the medicine is safe for you to take first and ask a pharmacist if you're not sure

• Use hot or cold compression packs for short-term relief – you can purchase these from your local pharmacy, or a hot water bottle and a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a cloth will also work. Although it may not be easy at times, it helps if you are optimistic about the injury and recognise that your pain should get better, as those who tend to stay positive regardless of their pain tend to recover quicker.

When Should You Seek Medical Advice For Back Pain?

Read more about treatments for back pain. Getting help and advice Back pain usually gets better on its own within a few weeks or months and you may not need to see a doctor or other healthcare professional. But it's a good idea to get medical advice if:

• The pain doesn't begin to improve within a month

• The pain prevents you carrying out your day-to-day activities

• The pain is severe or worsens over time

• You're worried about the pain or are struggling to cope You can see your GP, who will ask about your symptoms, examine your back, and discuss possible treatments.

They may refer you to a specialist doctor or a physiotherapist for further help. Alternatively, you may want to favour seeing a physiotherapist. Some NHS physiotherapists accept appointments without a doctor's referral, or you could choose to pay for private treatment. Your GP, specialist or physiotherapist may advise extra treatments if they don't think your pain will improve with self-help measures alone. These may include:

• Group exercise classes – where you're educated to do exercises to improve muscle strength and posture

• Manual therapy – treatments such as manipulating the spine and massage, usually carried out by physiotherapists, chiropractors or osteopaths

• Psychological support, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – this can be an advantageous and useful aspect of treatment if you're struggling to cope with the pain.

Some people choose to see a therapist for manual therapy without seeing their GP first. If you want to do this, you'll usually need to pay for private treatment. Surgery is generally only considered in a limited number of cases where back pain is caused by a specific medical condition. Read more about treatments for back pain.

What Are The Causes Of Back Pain?

Often the cause of back pain is not possible to classify. Doctors refer to this as "non-specific" back pain. Sometimes the pain may be a consequence of an injury such as a sprain or pull, but can occur for no apparent reason. It's unusual for it to be the result of anything serious. Back pain can also be due to a medical condition such as:

• A slipped (prolapsed) disc – where a disc of cartilage in the spine presses on a nearby nerve

• Sciatica – irritation of the nerve that runs from the pelvis to the feet These conditions tend to be accompanied with further symptoms like numbness, weakness or tingling sensations and are managed separately to non-specific back pain.

How Can You Reduce Your Risk Of Back Pain?

Preventing back pain is easier said than done, but the following tips may help reduce your risk:

• Do regular back exercises and stretches – your GP or a physiotherapist may be able to advise you about exercises to experiment with

• Stay active – doing regular exercise and keeping mobile can help keep your back strong; adults are advised to do two and a half hours of exercise per week

• Avoid sitting down for lengthy periods of time

• Take care when lifting – read some safe lifting tips

• Monitor your posture when sitting, using computers and watching TV

• Ensure the mattress on your bed and your pillows supports your back, neck and head properly

• Lose weight through a combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise if you're overweight – being overweight can enhance your risk of developing back pain

What to do in Emergency Back Pain Situations

You should contact your GP or NHS 111 immediately if you have back pain and;

• Numbness or tingling around your genitals or buttocks

• Difficulty urinating

• Loss of bladder or bowel control

• Chest pain

• High temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above

• Unexplained weight loss

• A swelling or a deformity in your back

• It doesn't improve after resting or is worse at night

• It started after a serious accident, such as after a car accident.

These problems could be a sign of something more serious and need to be checked urgently.

Tips To Help Prevent Back Pain From Developing In The Workplace:

Be correctly seated

Sitting for long durations at a PC screen is a recipe fro building up physical issues. Regardless of how good your posture may be, it's vital to get up and move.

Health experts advise breaking up sedentary time every half an hour for at a minimum of one to two minutes.

Find out more about the risks of sitting

Workstation factors that can affect your back include:

  • Seating posture
  • Computer screen position
  • Chair height
  • Keyboard position
  • Mouse position
  • Desk equipment layout

If you work in an office and use a computer, get tips on how to sit correctly.

If you're not sure about your seating position and workstation, ask your manager to arrange a workplace assessment for you. 

Adjusting your chair to avoid back pain

By law, workstation chairs must be stable. The standard office chair has five star shaped legs.

The height of the chair and backrest must be adjustable in height and tilt. Ideally, the backrest should move independently of the seat to allow the chair to be customised ergonomically to suit your needs.

When you're sitting, your thighs should be at right angles to your body or be tilting down a little.

If your set is adjusted correctly, your feet should be firmly on the floor, but you can add a footrest for additional support if you feel it is more comfortable. The primary objectives are to situate your feet on the floor and provide support with your back.

Lifting safely

One of the biggest causes of back injury, especially at work, is lifting or handling objects incorrectly. Learning and following the correct method for lifting and handling objects can help prevent back pain.

Key points to remember to keep safe when lifting:

  • plan your lift
  • start in a stable position
  • keep the load close to your waist
  • keep your back as upright as possible
  • avoid twisting your back or leaning sideways
  • avoid lifting loads beyond your capabilities 
  • push heavy objects, avoid pulling them
  • distribute the weight evenly to avoid the object slipping

For more information on correct lifting techniques and safe manual handling, read safe lifting tips.

Take regular breaks

Break up long periods of sitting by taking small regular breaks as these are better for your back than a few lengthy breaks.

It gives the muscles used when sitting a chance to relax while other muscles can stretch. This can prevent your back becoming stiff and tense.

The majority of employers provide the option to take a break from a computer at fairly regular intervals, such as getting a drink, going outside for some fresh air, or doing some work with another colleague away from your desk.

For free work-related health advice if you've been off work for four weeks or more, visit the Fit for Work website.

Treating Back Pain

In general, the best treatment for treating back pain is to remain active and, if necessary, use painkillers.

The more immobile you are, the weaker your back muscles will become, and thus, the more likelihood of them causing discomfort in the long term.

Research has shown people who remain positive tend to recover quicker than those who get depressed so try to avoid feeling down or having negative thoughts about your condition.

For back pain that lasts more than six weeks, treatment commonly involves a dual administration of painkillers and either acupuncture, exercise classes or manual therapy.

Read more about treating back pain.