Back pain affects thousands of people every day and can often have a devastating impact on your life.

Often caused by a simple muscle, ligament or tendon strain, back pain is usually not a serious problem and in many cases can be treated by over-the-counter medication and pain killers. However, sometimes back pain can be a chronic condition lasting on and off for several weeks or even months and years.

Causes of back pain

For most cases of non-specific back pain, it will be difficult to identify the specific cause. However, there are several factors that can increase the likelihood of developing or aggravating the pain:

  • Spending extended periods of time in a standing, sitting or bending position
  • Poor posture
  • Obesity (with a BMI of 30 or over)
  • Carrying or pulling excessive loads, not taking due care when lifting
  • Repetitive strain injury i.e. the overuse of muscles during sports or other activities
  • Overstretching or awkwardly twisting your back

Sometimes the cause of the pain is because of damage to parts of your spine, such as:

  • A slipped disc – when one of your intervertebral discs herniates, putting pressure on the nerves
  • Fractured, cracked or broken bones in your back
  • Spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spinal canal, causing nerves to get trapped
  • Osteoporosis – a progressive disease where bones lose density and become prone to fracture
  • Osteoarthritis – a degenerative disease that can affect the joints of your spine
  • Spondylolisthesis – displacement of the vertebra out of position
  • Rheumatoid arthritis – an inflammatory condition that can affect tissues and organs and particularly flexible joints
  • Degenerative disc disease – where the intervertebral discs wear down, causing chronic back pain

Back pain is a problem that can affect anyone at any time of their life and it can take many forms. There are multiple causes of backaches, tensions or stiffness which means that it can sometimes be difficult to establish what is causing the pain in your back.

Symptoms of back pain

Lower back pain
Soreness, tension or stiffness in the lower back area is the most common complaint, often referred to as ‘non-specific’ pain. Lower back pain can result from lifting something heavy, twisting awkwardly or as a result of poor posture.

Upper or middle back pain
This area is known as the thoracic spine. Pain in the upper or middle back can occur anywhere between the base of your neck and the bottom of your ribcage and symptoms include a dull, burning or sharp pain. You may also have pain in your arms, legs or chest. If you experience weakness in your arms or legs, a numb or tingling feeling in your arms, legs, chest or stomach area, or are suffering from a loss of bladder or bowel control you should seek immediate medical attention.

When should I worry about my back pain?

In most cases, it is not necessary to see a doctor for back pain because the pain usually goes away with or without treatment. However, a trip to the doctor is probably a good idea if you have numbness or tingling, if your pain is severe and doesn’t improve with medications and rest, or if you have pain after a fall or an injury.

What are treatment options for back pain?

Acute pain usually gets better without any specific treatment other than over-the-counter pain killers. There are different treatments for back pain that doesn’t improve with simple pain killers or chronic pain. These include:

  • Hot or Cold Packs - helps in sore, stiff backs and reduces muscle spasms
  • Exercise - the right exercise can help with back pain. Physiotherapy can help with this
  • Medication - over-the-counter drugs or medications described by the doctor
  • Behaviour changes - Learning to lift, push and pull in the right way. Physiotherapy can help with this
  • Injections - different pain-relieving injections can be given to treat back pain
  • Alternative medical treatment - including manipulation, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and acupuncture
  • Surgery - surgery is usually offered when other forms of treatment don’t work or you have chronic back pain. There are different types of surgeries that can be offered depending on the underlying cause.