A study carried out by Nuffield Health and Atomik Research found 36% of the 3,322 people questioned had lower back pain that affected their every-day lives.
Most of the time back pain gets better without serious medical treatment – often it can start to ease after roughly two weeks, but if your back pain is causing you concern, and isn’t getting better after about six weeks, it is probably time to see your GP.
Don’t just wait for things to get better on their own, there are steps you can take to help ease your back pain. Here’s our five-point guide to managing your back pain.
1. Keep moving to ease lower back pain
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to help ease your back pain. This is because keeping active keeps your muscles in shape – including those in your back. Strong back and abdominal muscles will help your posture, and help reduce your back pain. Start gently, and work your way up to longer walks or more laps, so that you don’t make your back pain worse. The following exercises all help strengthen your muscles, make you fitter, and more flexible, and will help your balance and posture.
Once you’ve got into the habit of exercising, keep it up, or the improvement in strength and flexibility will disappear.
Exercise is good for your mental health as well as for your muscles, as it triggers your body to release endorphins. These chemicals can reduce the amount of pain you’re feeling, and make you feel happier and more positive.
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2. Stay positive to manage lower back pain
Feeling mentally good is important. “Research is starting to show how important psychological factors are in managing low back pain,” explains a spokesperson from Arthritis Research UK.
Studies have found that having negative thoughts about your back pain, or always thinking the worst (“I’ll have this for the rest of my life”), can slow down your recovery.
The talking treatment Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be very helpful in dealing with both mental and physical health problems, including chronic pain. CBT courses can be just you and a therapist, group sessions, or through a computer programme or self-help book.
You can have CBT through the NHS. Ask your GP whether CBT is on offer at their surgery. If it isn’t there are other ways of accessing CBT through the NHS – through a programme called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), you can also look on the IAPT website, at https://www.england.nhs.uk/mental-health/adults/iapt/ or through your Community Mental Health Team (CMHT). Some NHS Trusts also have specialist therapy services. Your GP should be able to let you know if there is one in your area.
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3. Painkillers to help ease lower back pain
Common painkillers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can help ease lower back pain in the short term. This may be enough to keep you moving, which will help to strengthen your back muscles and reduce your pain levels.
You must be careful not to take more than the maximum dose per day, and you must also check that they are safe to take alongside any other medication you’re taking. If in any doubt ask your doctor, or pharmacist.
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4. Hands-on help to help you beat lower back pain
If your back pain doesn’t start getting better after six weeks, you might need some expert help.
- Physiotherapy involves exercise, the use of heat and cold, and manual techniques, including massage, to help ease pain and improve your blood circulation and your range of movement.
- Osteopathy involves treating your muscles and joints, using stretching and massaging techniques. It is recommended as a treatment for back pain by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)
- Acupuncture involves fine needles being inserted into different points on the body by a trained practitioner. It is used for a range of different health problems, including anxiety, infertility and headaches, as well as lower back pain. NICE recommends it as a treatment for chronic lower back pain, and chronic tension headaches and migraines.
5. Screening for long-lasting lower back pain
If your back pain has been going on for a while, or keeps recurring, ask your GP or back specialist if they use the STarT Back Screening Tool for low back pain. This questionnaire gives GPs the information they need to classify their patients into different groups, according to the level of treatment they need. It means that those people who are more likely to have long-term back pain and the psychological problems that can come with this, have the appropriate treatment targeted at their risk level.
What can cause lower back pain?
The lower back carries a lot of weight – all of your upper body, your arms and that big brain of yours too. That’s a lot of pressure for a relatively small body area.
Add to that the fact that the pressure is on the spine, a set of relatively small bones (compared to those in the legs, for example) that work together with the surrounding muscles to keep you upright.
When you suddenly feel lower back pain, it’s likely that if you’ve suffered an injury, you’ll know that’s the cause. However, for women with osteoporosis, it’s possible to experience a spinal fracture, for example, without being aware of it as it develops gradually.
It may be that you have suffered injury to one of your spinal discs. This can happen over time as a result of wear and tear as you age. They can also slip out of position which causes pain that radiates down one or both legs (sciatica).
Arthritis can also cause back pain as like all bones, the bones in the back can be affected by the arthritis.
Lower-back pain is most often the result of lack of muscle strength and/or being overweight but if you are experiencing other symptoms, such as numbness, problems urinating, weakness, or throbbing, you should see your GP.
While rare, lower back pain can sometimes indicate something more serious such as nerve damage or even cancer.
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How can you prevent lower back pain?
There are many ways you can work to prevent lower back pain and most are easy to undertake.
The first is to lose weight if you are overweight as this puts excess pressure on your body, leading to aches and pains where muscles can’t cope with the workload. Do it slowly and you're far more likely to keep it off long-term.
Increase core muscle strength
The next most important and effective way to prevent back pain is to increase your core muscle strength. Core muscle strength refers to the strength of your core muscles, the abdominal muscles, back muscles, pelvic muscles and chest muscles.
These are particularly important because they support your spine and back in general when you are moving around, lifting things or standing. In fact, they support you whatever movement you are doing.
If one of these muscle groups is weak, you are far more likely to suffer a muscle strain or feel achy after you’ve overworked it.
Some examples of great core strength exercises include:
- Push-ups (if you can’t do a full push up, do a upper-body one, where your legs remain on the floor)
- Knee-fold tucks (sitting on the floor, knees bent, raise your knees upwards so your feet leave the ground, hold and then lower)
- Oblique crunches (rather than raising your upper body forward, you do it to one side)
An old mattress can cause havoc to your back health. While you’re moving around during the day, changing positions, you might spend several hours in the same position on your bed which means that if your mattress isn’t supporting your spine and head, you’re not giving your body a chance to rest.
If your mattress is older than ten years, get a new one. And look for one that’s not too soft and not too hard – that will give you body the right support.
You can also try sleeping with different pillows (fewer/more/firmer/softer) and sleeping on your back instead of on your side to help your spine lengthen as you sleep.
By far the most common way people injure their lower backs is while lifting heavy objects.
Never bend from the hips to pick something up but always bend your knees first. That way you use your whole back and your leg muscles to lift rather than just your upper body.
You’d think that sitting down puts less pressure on your back than standing, but the opposite is true.
Make sure you take regular breaks to ease the pressure on your back and try sitting back a little. Not slouching, but leaning back into the chair back to allow it to support your weight.
And make sure there is spine support in the lower-back part of the chair - put a small cushion or rolled up towel there if necessary.
That said, if you’re a busy-bee type who’s always on their feet, make sure to take time out to rest your back too. Take time for a bath or rest on the sofa. Being active is great but your body needs time to rest too.
Research from the University of Washington shows that regular yoga sessions can ease the symptoms of lower back pain more quickly than other exercises such as walking for example.
Why? The researchers theorise that yoga doesn’t just build up core muscle strength through movement, the deep breathing aspect also helps relax and strengthen core body muscles.
Don't overload the handbag
Chances are your handbag is overloaded with the paraphernalia of daily life. Well, it’s time to clear out some of that stuff inside because your handbag could be putting your spine into an awkward position causing back ache.
This happens because without meaning to, you automatically curve your spine and raise your shoulder to hold the bag. If it’s heavy, that effect is obviously a lot greater.
Deal with stress
We all have stressors in life, the key is in how you respond to them and treat the symptoms.
By far the best way to reduce stress is to exercise. Head to your local pool for the best possible de-stressing type of exercise – a study conducted by research company Ipsos MORI found that 74% of people who went swimming found it helped release stress and tension.
Does the way you stand hurt your back?
There are some countries where people are far less likely to suffer with back pain, than here in the UK. This is why Esther Gokhale, an acupuncturist and author of 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, who had treated many patients for back pain, decided to research what people on those places did differently.
She travelled the world, including Ecuador, India, Portugal, and West Africa, where rates of back pain were dramatically lower and, in some areas, non-existent.
The people in these places weren’t easy on their backs, they carried heavy loads, worked at tasks that required lots of bending, and even sat on the ground all day long working on crafts.
So how is it that they didn’t get back ache? The key, Esther found, lies in the position of the spine.
Spine shapes in the UK and other western countries like the US are often in the form of a ‘s’, whereas in these other places, the locals’ spine shape was more like a ‘j’. And in fact, children’s spines also mimic the ‘j’ shape, adding further evidence to the idea that it’s more natural and that over time, our backs take on the less natural – and more likely to cause pain – shape of an ‘s’.
Esther isn’t able to say why our spines are shaped this way, the research hasn’t been done in order to ascertain that, but theories include that it’s because of our sedentary lifestyles or excess weight.
Statistics from the British Chiropractic Association show that office workers are most likely to suffer with back, backing up the idea that being sedentary and hunched over a computer keyboard is at least partly at fault.
What’s more, Esther found that by changing her own way of standing, sitting and lying, she was able to relieve her own chronic back pain and since then, that of hundreds of others, too.
Some quick fixes she suggest is to avoid trying too hard to sit or stand straight, and instead to roll your shoulders back but allow your thumbs to point out to the sides of your body rather than head or towards the inside.
This emulates the way our ancestors used to stand, she says, and helps work your abdominal muscles.
If you try and squeeze your glutes (your bottom muscles) together too, as you walk, you’ll be working two sets of muscles that help support your back.
Then, you can also try these two simple moves, to see a difference.
“Stretch sitting makes sitting more comfortable for longer periods of time,” says Esther. “It turns sitting into a healthy and even healing activity. To enjoy some gentle traction while you are sitting, do this:”
- Push your bottom back in the chair, lean forward and bend slightly at the waist.
- Grab onto the side bars of the chair (the bars that support the arms of the chair), and push with your hands to lift the torso up just a bit, while still keeping your ribs in.
- Lean back and hook yourself to the chair, let yourself relax against the back rest.
“Stretch lying allows you to get a gentle stretch in your back all night long, allowing for a restful night’s sleep with healthy length in your spine. To get this stretch in your back, try this:”
- Lie on your back with one pillow under your head and just a little bit under your shoulders, and one pillow under your knees.
- Prop yourself up on your elbows.
- With the ribs in, dig into your elbows and add a stretch to your spine as you settle yourself back down to the bed.
- Lengthen the back of your neck by tucking the chin in, press the shoulders down towards your feet, and away from your ears.
“Relax and enjoy!” adds Esther.
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