4 back pain myths

Back pain will affect a third of us this year. Nuffield Health Physiotherapy Lead, John Taylor, busts four popular myths about cause and treatment.

“I need a scan or MRI to diagnose my pain”

Most people who suffer from back pain do not need to have an MRI scan as part of their assessment. The majority of back pain complaints are caused by simple strains and sprains and a scan will not change the way patients are treated.

A physiotherapist will carry out a thorough assessment to identify the cause of your issue, including a detailed history, before performing tests of the muscles, joints and nerves. The information gathered will go towards a considered diagnosis and treatment plan.

However, if after a thorough assessment, the physiotherapist believes you may need further investigation, such as an MRI scan or a review by a consultant, they can help to organise this.

“I have lower back pain - it must be a slipped disc”

As physiotherapists, we often hear patients talking about a 'slipped disc'. Your discs are really strong tissues that sit between the bones of your spine. Because they are so strong, they simply cannot slip out of place, and neither can any other joints in your spine.

Despite being strong and stable, discs can still cause us discomfort. Disc-related conditions can be extremely painful and complex. Like any structure in the body, discs age, and over time they can lose some of their flexibility and shock absorbing properties. Less cushioning between the bones in your spine can cause pain. In other cases, the soft centre of the disc can become inflamed or bulge and come into contact with a nerve root, causing a different kind of pain but no less discomfort.

Patients tend to be quite worried that if they have a disc problem it will never get better. But be assured, the clinical evidence tells us that, even if your pain is disc-related, it can and most often does get better.

Most causes of back pain are simple strains and sprains of the muscles and joints. Whatever the cause, it’s likely that gentle exercise, and physiotherapy can treat the condition.

“Exercise is going to make the pain worse. I need to rest”

By resting and staying inactive, your pain is likely to take longer to resolve. Exercise based treatments have great track record in alleviating the symptoms of back pain.

What’s more, even gentle exercise will still get your blood flowing and could even elevate your mood by releasing endorphins. There are no 'absolute truths' when it comes to pain management and back care though, which is where the experts have their part to play in guiding you. Your physiotherapist will be able to advise on the best exercises for you and your condition.

“Pain equals damage”

Pain doesn’t always indicate damage. A great example of this is a paper cut. Although a paper cut is tiny, the pain you feel can be really severe. Pain is more often a marker that a part of your body is sensitive rather than being damaged.

The common belief that pain does equal damage often leads us to think: “I should stop all things that are painful”. In turn, this encourages inactivity, which will actually slow down your recovery. Exercises and physiotherapy are helpful for recovery and, with guidance, are completely safe to perform regularly.

When you are recovering from a bout of back pain, good and bad days are par for the course. But with expert support, you can remain confident and keep active.

Listen to your body. If there's something that's niggling, twinging, or just not feeling right, book an online appointment with one of our physiotherapists to get it checked out.

Last updated Wednesday 24 August 2022

First published on Friday 26 May 2017