Back pain usually affects the lower back. It can be short-term, lasting a few days or weeks, or for some people, a long-term condition. Most people will have some form of back pain at some stage in their lives.
Back pain is extremely common - about 80 percent of people are affected at some point in their lifetime. Anyone can get back pain at any age, but it's more common in people over the age of 35.
Your back has many interconnecting structures including bones, joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Its main support structure is the spine, which is made up of 24 separate bones called vertebrae, plus the bones of the sacrum and coccyx. Between the vertebrae are discs that act as shock absorbers and allow your spine to bend. Your spinal cord threads down through the central canal of each vertebra, carrying nerves from your brain to the rest of your body.
You may experience low back pain as tension, soreness or stiffness in your lower back area. This pain is often referred to as 'non-specific' back pain and usually improves on its own within a few days.
Back pain may be called either 'acute' or 'chronic' depending on how long your symptoms last. You may have:
It's often very difficult to know exactly what causes back pain. It's usually thought to be related to a strain in one of the interconnecting structures in your back, rather than a nerve problem. For most people with back pain, there isn't any specific underlying problem or condition that can be identified as the cause of the pain. However, there are a number of factors that can increase your risk of developing back pain, or aggravate it once you have it. These include:
There may be other, more serious underlying causes of your back pain, but these are rare. They include:
Back pain may also be caused by an infection or cancer, but these two causes are very rare.
See your GP as soon as possible if you experience back pain and one of the following problems:
These symptoms are known as red flags. It's important to seek medical help for these symptoms to ensure you don't have a more serious, underlying cause for your back pain.
If you have back pain, further testing is not normally recommended unless your symptoms don't improve after a few weeks or if you have one of the red flags [see box]. If your GP sends you for tests you may have:
These tests are used to find out if you have a more specific, underlying cause for your back pain.
Self-help measures are often very helpful in people with back pain. If your back pain is severe or chronic your GP may prescribe appropriate medicines or refer you for manual (physical) therapies. If an underlying cause of back pain is suspected, your GP may refer you to a back or pain specialist or clinic for diagnosis and specialised treatments (such as spinal injections).
There are a number of things you can do to help relieve low back pain.
Taking an non-prescription painkiller (such as aspirin or paracetamol) or anti-inflammatory medicine (such as ibuprofen) is often enough to relieve acute low back pain. You can also use creams, lotions and gels that contain painkillers or anti-inflammatory ingredients. Make sure you don't apply an anti-inflammatory cream as well as taking an anti-inflammatory tablet or capsule as they can interact. Talk to your GP or pharmacist for more advice about using anti-inflammatory medicines.
If your pain is severe or chronic, your GP may prescribe stronger medicines.
Always read the accompanying consumer medicines information leaflet and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
Manual (physical) therapies can be helpful for back pain. Treatment can involve exercises, posture advice and massage. Treatment courses usually last about six to 12 weeks.
Back pain can usually be managed successfully with the simple treatments listed above, but about 10 percent of people have ongoing problems. Back surgery is usually a last resort in people who have an underlying cause for their pain.
Some people find acupuncture can help relieve low back pain.
Alternatively, you could try a pain-management program to help you better deal with and manage your symptoms.
You should always talk to your GP before trying any complementary therapy.
Good back care can greatly reduce your risk of getting low back pain. To look after your back, make sure you:
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Last published: 30 July 2011
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