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Back pain

Back pain is a common problem that affects most people at some point in their life. It usually feels like an ache, tension or stiffness in your back.

Back pain is a common problem that affects most people at some point in their life. It usually feels like an ache, tension or stiffness in your back.

The pain can be triggered by bad posture while sitting or standing, bending awkwardly, or lifting incorrectly. 

Back pain is not generally caused by a serious condition and, in most cases, it gets better within 12 weeks. It can usually be successfully treated by taking painkillers and keeping mobile.

Find out more about what can cause back pain.

Types of back pain

Backache is most common in the lower back, although it can be felt anywhere along your spine, from your neck down to your hips. You can find information on the specific types of back pain on the following pages:

Read more about the symptoms of back pain.

Treating back pain

If you have back pain, you should try to remain as active as possible and continue with your daily activities. In the past, doctors recommended rest for back pain, but most experts now agree that being inactive for long periods is bad for your back. Moderate activity, such as walking or doing everyday tasks, will help your recovery. 

You can take painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, if you feel the need to. Hot or cold compression packs may also help reduce the pain. You can buy compression packs from your local pharmacy, or a bag of frozen vegetables and a hot water bottle will work just as well. Find your nearest pharmacy.

Your state of mind can also play an important role. Although it can be difficult to be cheerful if you are in pain, research has shown that people who remain positive tend to recover quicker than those who get depressed.

Some people choose to have manual therapy, such as physiotherapychiropractic or osteopathy, as soon as the pain starts. Private appointments cost around £40.

For back pain that lasts more than six weeks (which doctors describe as chronic), treatment typically involves a combination of painkillers and either acupuncture, exercise classes or manual therapy. 

Spinal surgery is usually only considered when all else has failed.

Read more about treating back pain.

Backache in pregnancy

It's quite common to get backache in pregnancy. If you're pregnant, you may not want to take painkillers, but there are other ways of easing the discomfort.

Read more about back pain in pregnancy

When to see your GP

Most cases of back pain get better on their own and you do not need to see a doctor.

However, you should visit your GP if you are worried about your back or you are finding it difficult to cope with the pain.

Read more about how back pain is diagnosed.

You should seek immediate medical help if your back pain is accompanied by:

  • fever of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above
  • unexplained weight loss
  • swelling in the back
  • constant back pain that doesn't ease after lying down
  • pain in your chest or high up in your back
  • pain down your legs and below the knees
  • loss of bladder or bowel control
  • inability to pass urine 
  • numbness around your genitals, buttocks or back passage 
  • pain that is worse at night 

These are known as 'red flag symptoms' and could be a sign of something more serious.

Preventing back pain

How you sit, stand, lie and lift can all affect the health of your back. See the back pain guide for how to sit, stand and lift correctly to avoid backache.

Try to avoid placing too much pressure on your back and ensure your back is strong and supple. Regular exercise, such as walking and swimming, is an excellent way of preventing back pain. Activities such as yoga or pilates can improve your flexibility and strengthen your back muscles.

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Content Supplied by NHS Choices

Back pain

Keeping your back strong and supple is the best way to avoid getting back pain. Regular exercise, maintaining good posture and lifting correctly will all help.

Keeping your back strong and supple is the best way to avoid getting back pain. Regular exercise, maintaining good posture and lifting correctly will all help.

If you have recurring bouts of back pain, the following advice may be useful:

  • lose weight – too much upper body weight can strain the lower back; you can use the healthy weight calculator to find out whether you need to lose weight.
  • wear flat shoes with cushioned soles as they can help reduce the pressure on your back
  • avoid sudden movements which can cause muscle strain
  • try to reduce any stress, anxiety and tension, which can all cause or worsen back pain – Tips for managing stress
  • stay activeregular exercise, such as walking and swimming, is an excellent way of preventing back pain (see below)

Exercise

Exercise is both an excellent way of preventing back pain and of reducing it. However, if you have had back pain for more than six weeks, you should consult a healthcare professional before starting any exercise programme.

Exercises such as walking or swimming strengthen the muscles that support your back without putting any strain on it or subjecting it to a sudden jolt.

Activities such as yoga or pilates can improve the flexibility and the strength of your back muscles. It is important that you carry out these activities under the guidance of a properly qualified instructor.

Below are some simple exercises you can do at home to help prevent or relieve back pain.

  • Wall slides – stand with your back against a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Slide down into a crouch so that your knees are bent to about 90 degrees. Count to five and then slide back up the wall. Repeat five times.
  • Leg raises – lie flat on your back on the floor. Lift each heel in turn just off the floor while keeping your legs straight. Repeat five times.
  • Bottom lifts – lie flat on your back on the floor. Bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the floor. Lift your bottom in the air by tightening your stomach muscles while keeping your back straight. Repeat five times.

At first, you should do these exercises once or twice a day, before gradually increasing to six times a day, as your back allows.

These exercises are also useful for warming up your back. Many people injure their back when doing everyday chores at home or work, such as lifting, gardening or using a vacuum cleaner. Warming up your back before starting these chores can help prevent injury.

Read more about exercises for back pain.

Posture

How you sit, stand and lie down can have an important effect on your back. The following tips should help you maintain a good posture.

Standing

Stand upright, with your head facing forward and your back straight. Balance your weight evenly on both feet and keep your legs straight.

Sitting

Make sure you sit upright with support in the small of your back. Your knees and hips should be level and your feet should be flat on the floor (use a footstool if necessary). Some people find it useful to use a small cushion or rolled-up towel to support the small of the back.

If you use a keyboard, make sure that your forearms are horizontal and your elbows are at right angles.

Read more about how to sit correctly.

Driving

Make sure that your lower back is properly supported. Correctly positioning your wing mirrors will prevent you from having to twist around. Your foot controls should be squarely in front of your feet.

If you are driving long distances, take regular breaks so that you can stretch your legs.

Sleeping

Your mattress should be firm enough to support your body while supporting the weight of your shoulders and buttocks, keeping your spine straight.

If your mattress is too soft, place a firm board (ideally 2cm thick) on top of the base of your bed and under the mattress. Your head should be supported with a pillow, but make sure your neck is not forced up at a steep angle.

Lifting and handling

One of the biggest causes of back injury, particularly at work, is lifting or handling objects incorrectly. Learning and following the correct method for lifting and handling objects can help prevent back pain. You should:

  • Think before you lift – can you manage the lift? Are there any handling aids you can use? Where is the load going?
  • Start in a good position – your feet should be apart, with one leg slightly forward to maintain balance; when lifting, let your legs take the strain – bend your back, knees and hips slightly, but do not stoop or squat; tighten your stomach muscles to pull your pelvis in; do not straighten your legs before lifting as you may strain your back on the way up.
  • Keep the load close to your waist – keep the load close to your body for as long as possible with the heaviest end nearest to you.
  • Avoid twisting your back or leaning sideways, particularly when your back is bent – your shoulders should be level and facing in the same direction as your hips; turning by moving your feet is better than lifting and twisting at the same time.
  • Keep your head up once you have the load secure, look ahead, not down at the load.
  • Know your limits – there is a big difference between what you can lift and what you can safely lift; if in doubt, get help.
  • Push rather than pull – if you have to move a heavy object across the floor, it is better to push it rather than pull it.
  • Distribute the weight evenly – if you are carrying shopping bags or luggage, try to distribute the weight evenly on both sides of your body.

See the back pain guide for more advice about how to sit, stand and lift correctly.



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