Back pain is very common, with around one in three of us getting back pain every year. It’s usually the lower back that’s affected.
About Low Back Pain
Low back pain can happen anywhere below the ribs and above the legs. It is possible to hurt your back when you lift, reach, or twist. In fact, almost everyone has low back pain at one time or another.
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.
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.
Symptoms of Low Back Pain
The symptoms of back pain varies. Back pain may come on suddenly, perhaps after you’ve lifted something heavy, or it may come on gradually over time. Some people with back pain also have pain down one leg, or into the buttock or groin. This is sometimes called sciatica.
You’ll probably find that the pain is worse when you move, and better when you lie down. This may make it hard for you to carry out your usual day-to-day activities, and you may find it difficult to sleep well.
When Should I see a Back Pain Specialist?
See a doctor if the pain is severe or gets worse over time, or if it doesn’t start to improve after a few weeks.
A rare but serious problem called cauda equina syndrome can occur if the nerves at the end of the spinal cord are squeezed. Seek medical treatment if you have weakness or numbness in both legs or you lose bladder or bowel control.
Causes of Low 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 back 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:
- standing, sitting or bending down for long periods
- lifting, carrying, pushing or pulling loads that are too heavy, or doing these tasks in the wrong way
- having a trip or a fall
- having poor posture
There may be other, more serious underlying causes of your low back pain. They include:
- COMPRESSION FRACTURE – A weakened spinal bone (vertebra) may fracture and collapse (compress) because of a minor injury or without an obvious injury, due to osteoporosis.
- A SLIPPED DISC – this is when a disc bulges so far out that it puts pressure on your spinal nerves.
Diagnosis of Low Back Pain
If, however, your symptoms don’t improve after a few weeks, you may need to have:
- an X-ray
- a CT scan (a test that uses X-ray equipment and computer software to create pictures of the inside of your body)
- an MRI scan (a test that uses magnets and radiowaves to produce images of the inside of the body)
- blood tests
These tests are used to find out if you have a more specific, underlying cause for your back pain.
Prevention of Low Back Pain
Good back care can greatly reduce your risk of getting low back pain. To look after your back, make sure you:
- take regular exercise – walking and swimming are particularly beneficial
- try to keep your stress levels to a minimum
- bend from your knees and hips, not your back
- maintain good posture – keep your shoulders back and don’t slouch