Back pain

Most people have back pain at some time. Find out how you can avoid getting back pain, what to do if you develop backache and where to get help for chronic back pain.

Causes of back pain

Backache may be triggered by overuse, injury, lifting a heavy object, gardening or moving a bulky piece of furniture.

Long hours sitting at a desk, poor posture, heavy housework, pregnancy or anything that puts a strain on the muscles that support your spine can lead to problems.

It is often the result of an inactive lifestyle, so taking exercise and eating healthily will help prevent back pain.

Back pain can also be due to the medical conditions osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.

Avoiding back pain

To help you avoid backache:

  • watch your posture, particularly if you sit down a lot - take regular breaks to walk around and stretch out
  • when lifting anything, bend your knees, keep your stomach pulled in and hold the item close to you
  • stay within the normal weight range for your height - excess weight puts pressure on your spine
  • stay active - walking and swimming are great for keeping your back in shape
  • if you work at a desk, your feet should be flat on the floor or suitably supported
  • on long car journeys, put a cushion behind your back and take breaks to stretch your legs
  • save high heels for special occasions as they put a strain on your spine
  • strengthen your core muscles by being active and exercising

If you have backache

Most back pain gets better on its own.

The worst thing you can do is stay in bed as this weakens the muscles that support the spine.

Instead, try to keep moving and take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

A hot-water bottle may help to relax muscles.

If you are forced to stay in bed, stay there for as short a time as possible (no more than three days) and get up and move around now and again.

As soon as you can, do some light activity such as walking, cycling or swimming.

Types of back problems

Your back pain may only be temporary and last just a few days, or it may be a sign of something more serious like a slipped disc or sciatica.

A slipped disc

The spine's vertebrae are separated by discs of cartilage (made up of a tough outer ring with a soft jelly-like substance inside). The soft part escapes between the vertebrae and can press on a nerve.

Sciatica

The pressure of a slipped disc on the root of the sciatic nerve can result in pain down a leg, in the buttock or thigh.

For a slipped disc or sciatica, treatment should almost always be conservative to begin with.

Attempts should be made to reduce the symptoms by manual therapy advice and exercise.

Treatments

There are two main treatments that are commonly used for serious back pain problems - a discectomy and spinal fusion. Both are normally used as a last resort.

A discectomy

Areas of the disc and surrounding bone are removed to reduce pressure on the nerve root. If possible, a section, rather than the whole disc, is cut away.

Spinal fusion

An operation in which several vertebrae are fused together to stop them from moving.

 

The information on this page was provided by the Department of Health.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed April 2018

This page is due for review May 2020

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