Back pain is a common condition that affects around 17% of the UK population. Back pain can range from a dull constant ache to a shooting, sharp pain. Most back pain improves within a few weeks but often it can take longer. In this guide we go through all of your options to manage back pain. Sciatica pain is a type of back pain that follows the path of your sciatic nerve down the back of the leg. Find out more about Sciatica.
Many of us will experience back pain at some point. Usually it isn’t caused by a serious problem and could just be a strain to a muscle or ligament. Back pain can come on suddenly as a result of an accident or heavy lifting. It can also develop slowly due to changes to the spine as you get older. While the pain may get worse when you bend, lift, twist, walk or stand it’s important to continue to stay active.
It’s not always easy to identify the cause of your back pain. Back pain may occur due to a variety of factors such as:
When there’s no obvious cause, back pain is referred to as ‘non-specific’. If the pain comes from the joints, bones or soft tissue around the spine, it’s called ‘mechanical’.
Lower back pain, or lumbago, is very common and is often caused by a pulled muscle or ligament. Lower back pain is caused by:
Severe and chronic low back pain can be caused by other conditions including disc problems or issues with your spinal cord.
You may feel back pain in a specific area of your back or all over your back. The pain can sometimes move to other parts of the body such as your legs. The type and level of pain is unique to each person and will depend on the cause and location.
Common symptoms of back pain include:
If you have more serious symptoms of back pain, contact your GP immediately for medical advice. Symptoms can include:
In many cases back pain can be short-term and will get better over time. Even if you have severe back pain, it doesn’t always mean you have a serious condition.
However, sometimes the pain can last for a while or it might keep coming back. If the pain is affecting your quality of life it’s important to see a healthcare professional to get advice.
Mechanical problems which cause back pain include:
Back pain can be caused by inflammatory conditions, such as:
There are a number of medical conditions which can lead to back pain, including:
In some cases, you may need x-rays or CT scans to try and identify the cause of your back pain.
Being active is vital to help with back pain relief. When you don’t move, you can make your back more stiff and painful. By keeping moving you will speed up your recovery.
A physiotherapist can recommend specific exercises to improve your strength and flexibility. The physiotherapist can also massage muscles, bones and joints around the spine. These massages can reduce back pain, though this treatment is not suitable for all back conditions.
You may feel uncomfortable doing back exercises when in pain. However, exercises should help you reduce the pain in the long term. If you are in a lot of pain during or after exercise, you should see your GP or a physiotherapist for advice. They may be able to prescribe you muscle relaxants or pain relievers to help you manage.
Your emotional response to back pain is also important. The more positive you are, the faster your back is likely to get better.
Psychological therapy including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT can help you cope with the pain and engage with pain management in a positive way.
Here are some other ways to help relieve your back pain:
You can do simple exercises for lower back pain at home which may help. It’s better to start slowly and build up gradually if you’re new to exercise. Your GP or physiotherapist will be able to give you advice about specific lower back pain exercises.
Research has shown that a 12-week yoga programme is effective in treating lower back pain. Yoga classes are available at many sports centres. You need to make sure your yoga instructor is aware of your back pain.
You can manage back pain using over the counter pain relief medications. These medications can be bought from any pharmacy and include:
Pharmacies will often stock combination products, like co-codamol (codeine and paracetamol) or Nurofen Plus (codeine and ibuprofen). Taking combination medication can help if you want to reduce the number of pills you take for back pain.
Paracetamol on its own is not effective in treating back pain. It’s better to use it in combination with other pain relief.
If you’re taking other prescription medication, speak to your pharmacist to find out if it’s safe to take over the counter pain relief.
If your back pain is persistent, your doctor may prescribe stronger medications to help you manage. These include:
Remember that medications are only part of your treatment to manage back pain. Try to be as active as possible and take medications when the pain becomes too strong.
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