What is back pain?
Advice to help you get back in action
Ever felt a twinge of discomfort that’s stopped you in your tracks? You’re not alone! Back pain is common, and pain levels can range from mild to severe. The spine and back muscles link our limbs and head together, so even though the problem sometimes lies in the back, you may feel pain in places like your knee or arm.
Types of back pain
It can be difficult to work out what's causing back pain – we call this 'non-specific back pain' – but other times the cause is much clearer. The most common causes of back pain are:
• Musculoskeletal – as a result of injury or overwork of the muscles, ligaments and tendons that support the spine
• Arthritis – as a result of inflammation of the joints formed between vertebrae (the small bones that stack on top of each other to form the spine)
• Compression of one of the nerves – also known as a pinched nerve
Musculoskeletal causes of back pain
Sprains and strains in the back can cause musculoskeletal back pain, but it's usually gone within a few weeks. Getting plenty of rest and applying a cold compress as soon as possible after the injury can help ease the pain. Sometimes painkillers may help, but your pharmacist will be able to advise you.
At times, there's deeper inflammation of the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the back, causing a more long-term kind of pain. This type often affects the lower back because it’s subject to the highest pressures and burdens. Lifting heavy objects and standing or sitting for long periods can cause lower back pain.
If rest and regular painkillers aren't enough to manage your back pain, make an appointment with your GP who may:
• Prescribe you stronger anti-inflammatory medication
• Refer you for physiotherapy
• Advise you about lifestyle changes
Arthritis of the back
These are the most common origins of arthritis in the back:
• Osteoarthritis – due to the wear and tear of protective cartilage around the bones in joints. It’s common in the elderly and those who lift heavy loads regularly
• Rheumatoid arthritis – caused when the body starts attacking its own tissues leading to pain, inflammation and stiffness
• Ankylosing spondylitis – a chronic condition where the spine becomes inflamed. It's also associated with extreme fatigue and most commonly appears in teenagers and young adults
Sometimes nerves become irritated as they pass between vertebrae in the spine. This means you can get shoulder pain with origin in the neck, and leg pain with origin in the lower back. The technical term for this is sciatica.
Sciatica can be caused by several things like arthritis and bulging of the disc. If you get burning pains or tingling pains – especially at night – you should speak to your GP.
• Rest when the pain is severe but try not to become inactive – regular exercise can actually help long-term back pain
• Consider taking painkillers. Your pharmacist can help you to choose the most suitable option for you
• If you're still in pain, speak to your GP
• If you’re experiencing severe and persistent pain, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, weakness of the arms or legs, tingling sensations in your arms or legs, or incontinence (unable to control your urine or stools), see your GP straight away