Back pain is a common problem that will affect most people at some point in their life. The most common is lower back pain, which can have a variety of causes. The most common medical causes of lower back pain are:
- a slipped disc – when one of the discs in the spine is damaged and presses on the nerves
- sciatica – irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve, which causes pain, numbness and tingling that travels down one leg
- whiplash – neck injury caused by a sudden impact
- frozen shoulder – inflammation around the shoulder that causes pain and stiffness
- ankylosing spondylitis – a long-term condition that causes pain and stiffness where the spine meets the pelvis
However, most cases of back pain aren’t caused by serious damage or disease, but by minor sprains, strains or injuries, or a pinched or irritated nerve.
It used to be thought that bed rest would help you recover from a bad back, but it is now recognised that people who remain active are likely to recover more quickly. This may be difficult at first if the pain is severe, but trying to move around as soon possible, and aiming to do a little more each day will lead to faster recovery.
If you have had back pain for more than six weeks (known as chronic back pain), there are recommended treatment programs such as:
- Exercise classes – group classes supervised by a qualified instructor, where you are taught exercises to strengthen your muscles and improve your posture, as well as aerobic and stretching exercises.
- Manual therapy– therapies including manipulation, mobilization and massage, usually carried out by physiotherapists
- Acupuncture– a treatment where fine needles are inserted at different points in the body. It’s been shown to help reduce lower back pain, and is available at some physiotherapists.
These treatments are often effective for people whose back pain is seriously affecting their ability to carry out daily activities and who feel distressed and need help coping.
One type of lower back pain, called lumbar spinal stenosis, is sometimes treated with surgery. But physical therapy works just as well, and comes with fewer unwanted complications — some of them life-threatening — than surgery, according to a study published yesterday in Annals of Internal Medicine.