5 top tips to tackle back pain
What is causing my back pain?
It is estimated that up to 84% of adults in the UK will have back pain at some time during their lives, with up to 1 in 15 of them seeking help from a GP. By far the most common cause of back pain is a muscular sprain or strain (known as ‘musculoskeletal’ or ‘mechanical’ back pain). Other causes of back pain include a slipped disc and a condition known as ‘ankylosing spondylitis’ (which causes stiffness in the joints of the back). Sometimes lower back pain can be associated with pain going down the back of the legs. This is known as ‘sciatica’ and occurs when the nerves around the back become trapped or irritated.
Pain relief is such an important component of getting on top of long-term back pain. If you can get the right amount of relief to support you, you will find moving around and performing strengthening exercises much easier. This can help you to recover more effectively. Exercising without sufficient pain relief can lead to:
- Being unable to perform beneficial exercises properly
- Being unable to engage in long-term rehabilitation
- Potential damage or pain in other joints that end up ‘compensating’ for the back
Regular paracetamol is a good painkiller to try first for back pain. If this is not sufficient, then further pain medications such as ibuprofen can be helpful. Ibuprofen can also be purchased at the chemist in a gel form, which is good for providing local lower back pain relief with fewer side effects than taking tablets. It is important to seek medical advice before taking ibuprofen long term as it can have some harmful side effects. For example, if you have any problems with your stomach or kidneys, these can be worsened made using medications like ibuprofen over long periods of time. Your local pharmacy or GP is a good place to find reliable information and advice on effective over-the-counter pain relief and strong painkillers.
If you have injured your back or pulled a muscle, it can be helpful to rest for a day or two. However, following a short initial rest period, it is important to keep moving as much as you can and carrying out your normal daily activities. In the long term, rest can make back pain worse and make it much harder to get back on your feet. With prolonged periods of rest, the muscles in your back can weaken and stiffen, which can cause worsening back pain, particularly with lower back pain. Whilst targeted physiotherapy is important to improve your back, it is also essential to keep moving throughout the rest of the day to stop the muscles in your back and hips from stiffening up.
Exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles around your back, hips and core are an important part of rehabilitation and back pain treatment. Here are 3 exercises to get started with:
- Lying on your back with your knees bent and together, roll your knees from side to side whilst keeping your trunk still
- Lying on your back with your knees bent and together and your feet on the floor, place your hands behind your knees and pull them towards your chest
- Kneeling on all fours with your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips, keep your hands where they are and sit back on your heels to stretch
If you have on-going problems with back pain, it can be helpful to see a physiotherapist. They will be able to assess the areas that require more strengthening and stretching and guide you through targeted exercises.
Alternative therapies can give some people additional benefit alongside conventional treatments. For example, studies have shown that acupuncture can improve both pain and overall function in treating lower back pain. Research has also shown that using essential oils in aromatherapy can be beneficial in treating pain, including long-term relief for lower back pain, when used in combination with standard therapies. Alternative treatments tend to work best alongside other treatments such as painkillers and physiotherapy, and their effects often vary between different people.
Getting medical advice
There are many things you can do yourself at home to manage back pain, however you should seek help from your GP if:
- Your pain does not improve within a few weeks with regular over-the-counter painkillers and simple exercises
- Your pain is stopping you from doing your normal daily activities
- The pain is very severe
- You are struggling to cope with the pain
If you experience any of the following alongside back pain, you should contact a GP immediately or attend A&E:
- Numbness or tingling around the buttock area
- Loss of control of the bladder or bowels
- Unexplained weight loss
- Pain following a serious accident