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.
If your back pain is non-specific, your doctor 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 doctor suspects you have a specific underlying cause, he or she may refer you 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.
There are a number of things you can do to help relieve low back pain.
- Stay active and continue your daily activities as normally as you can. Bed rest may actually make low back pain worse, so try to limit the time you spend resting to a minimum.
- Apply hot or cold packs to the affected area. You can buy specially designed hot and cold packs from most pharmacies. If you prefer, you can apply a cold compress, such as ice or a bag of frozen peas, wrapped in a towel. Don’t apply ice directly to your skin as it can damage your skin.
Taking an over-the-counter painkiller such as aspirin or paracetamol, or anti-inflammatory medicine 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 doctor 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.
A physiotherapist (physical therapist – 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 doctor may refer you for physical therapy such as 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.
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.
Some people find acupuncture can help relieve low back pain.
Alternatively, you could try a pain-management programme to help you better deal with and manage your symptoms.
You should always talk to a doctor before trying any complementary therapy.
Availability and use of different treatments may vary from country to country. Ask your doctor for advice on your treatment options.
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:
- 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