The back is an incredible structure and it can take amazing loads and forces without us noticing. As amazing as the back is it can also be very vulnerable to injury if all the supporting ligaments, tendons and muscles are not working effectively. If left untreated this little tweak can turn into chronic back pain.
When your back feels good you don’t think about it much at all, but when it causes you pain it becomes impossible to think about anything else. That’s when it can help to know a little bit more about your back.
Your spine consists of 24 bones – known as vertebrae – all perfectly placed one on top of the other forming a column. In addition to supporting your upper body the spine provides protection to the spinal cord – the information superhighway between the brain and the rest of your body. Between the vertebrae sit the shock absorbing discs, which prevent the bones from rubbing against each other and give us the flexibility to bend and twist. It is a harmonious network of ligaments, tendons and muscles working together to provide your back with strength, stability and flexibility.
The lower back, or lumbar spine, is the most common place to experience back pain. However, some people do feel it in their upper back (thoracic spine) or even their neck (cervical spine). The pain itself may range from a dull persistent ache through to severe stabbing or shooting pain or spasms.
Back pain that has been present for less than 12 weeks is referred to as acute back pain, while chronic back pain describes pain that has persisted for more than 12 weeks. Sometimes, doctors might use the term ‘subacute’ to refer to back pain that lasts for between 4 and 12 weeks.
While it doesn’t help to relieve your pain, it can be reassuring to know that you’re not alone. In fact, around four out of every five Australians will experience acute low back pain at some stage in their lives.
It is not all bad
When your back screams with pain every time you move, it’s understandable to be concerned and assume you have a serious problem with your spine. But for the vast majority of people who experience back pain, this simply isn’t the case.
Instead, most back pain is thought to be caused by:
- Minor strains or injuries to muscles, tendons or ligaments in the back
- Poor posture
- Lifting objects that are too heavy or using the incorrect technique.
The good news is most people make a full recovery within a matter of days or weeks and this recovery is sped up by implementing proactive strategies like massage, ice and anti-inflammatories under expert advice.
And now for the bad news: back pain does have a tendency to recur, so if you’ve ever had a sore back it’s likely you’ll be affected again in the future. The likelihood of future episodes is greatly reduced by preventative management so back pain does not have to rule your life.
What to do
So what should you do when your back pain flares up? Current guidelines for managing back pain recommend that you:
- Stay as active as possible – by keeping up your regular daily activities, and avoiding bed rest or couch time. The key is to build up your activity levels slowly and gradually without overdoing it.
- Stretch often or start yoga – by taking your body through its full range of motion you can reduce the severity of pack pain.
- Stretch the whole chain – your body is all connected so when in the early stages of back pain stretch both down the chain and up the chain. For example, it is quite often tight glutes or hamstrings that lead to back pain.
- Control your pain – with simple pain-relieving medications, and other measures that may work for you, so that you can stay active
- Be positive – and remember that you’ll be feeling better in a few days or weeks.
Most back pain will often improve within a matter of days or weeks simply by following the steps above. There are some rare circumstances, however, where you should see a doctor as soon as possible:
- If you have a fever
- If you are having difficulty controlling your bladder or bowels (passing or holding in urine or stools)
- If you feel weak in your legs or your entire body
- If you develop numbness or pins and needles in your legs or feet.
And while back pain can persist for several weeks, it should gradually improve with time, so see your doctor or consult a physiotherapist if you aren’t making any progress or if your pain is getting worse.
If your pain is ongoing consult with a health professional to receive the best treatment for you.