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Back pain - back pain usually affects the lower back. It can be a short-term problem, lasting a few days or weeks, or continue for many months or even years. Most people will have some form of back pain at some stage in their lives.
About back pain. Back pain is extremely common - about four in five people are affected at some point in their lifetime. Anyone can get back pain at any age, but it's most common in people between the ages of 35 and 55, or over.
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
It's often very difficult to know exactly what causes back pain, but it's usually thought to be related to a strain in one of the interconnecting structures in your back, rather than a nerve problem. Back pain caused by a more serious, underlying condition is rare and you're unlikely to be affected unless you are very old or very young.
What are the symptoms of back pain? If you have low back pain, you may have 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:
You should see your GP as soon as possible if, as well as back pain, you have:
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.
What are the causes of back pain? 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 low back pain, but
these are rare. They include:
Diagnosis of back pain - your GP will usually be able to diagnose low
back pain from your symptoms and there will be no need for further tests. If,
however, your symptoms don't improve after a few weeks, or you have some red
flag symptoms, he or she may refer you to a back clinic to have:
These tests are used to find out if you have a more specific, underlying cause for your back pain.
What are the treatments for back pain? If your back pain is non-specific, your GP will recommend you try self-help measures. Alternatively, he or she may prescribe medicines or refer you for physical therapy if your pain is severe or chronic. If, however, your GP suspects you have a specific underlying cause, he or she may refer you to a back clinic or a pain clinic to see if you are suitable to have spinal injections. These are used to find out the exact source of, and also to treat, your back pain but aren't suitable for everyone.
Self-help for back pain - there are a number of things you can do to
help relieve low back pain.
Medicines for back pain - taking an over-the-counter 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. Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
If your pain is severe or chronic, your GP may prescribe stronger medicines such as diazepam, morphine or tramadol. However, these aren't suitable for everyone because they can be addictive and cause side-effects. Always ask your doctor for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.
Physical therapies for back pain - a physiotherapist (a health professional who specialises in maintaining and improving movement and mobility) may be able to help you design a programme to help you exercise and stretch.
Alternatively, your GP may refer you for physical therapy such as physiotherapy, chiropractic treatment or osteopathy (therapies that are given alongside conventional treatments) to help with your back pain. Treatment can involve exercises, posture advice, massage, and techniques known as spinal mobilisation and spinal manipulation. Treatment courses usually last about six to 12 weeks.
Surgery for back pain - back pain, even if it's chronic, can usually
be treated or managed successfully, but about one in 10 people have ongoing
problems. Back surgery is really only considered as a last resort if the pain is
related to a specific cause.
Also, you could try a pain-management programme to help you deal better with and manage your symptoms.
You should always talk to your GP before trying any complementary therapy.
Prevention of back pain - 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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