Back pain is very common, and not always something that has a clear cause. It’s particularly common to experience pain in your lower back (this is known as lumbago), however, back pain can be felt anywhere between the neck and the hips.
Most people who suffer from back pain find that it goes away on its own within a few weeks. In some cases, however, back pain becomes a recurring problem, with symptoms returning regularly.
What causes back pain?
In the majority of cases, back pain either has no obvious cause or is related to an injury to the bones, joints or soft tissues surrounding the spine. You might have sprained a ligament or strained a muscle, perhaps by lifting something in an awkward manner.
With this type of back pain, symptoms are usually made better or worse by moving or changing position. For example, you might find that the pain eases if you lie down, and becomes worse when you move around. Sometimes this kind of back pain is also associated with feeling very stressed or run down. The good news is that this type of back pain normally goes away within a few weeks.
Usually, your symptoms will be different if your back pain has been caused by a medical condition such as:
- A slipped disc (where a nerve is pressed on by a disc of cartilage from the spine)
- Sciatica (where the nerve running between the feet and the lower back becomes irritated)
- Ankylosing spondylitis (where the joints in the spine swell)
- Spondylolisthesis (where a bone in the spine slips out of place)
Numbness and tingling in the back and other parts of the body can be a symptom of a slipped disc, sciatica or spondylolisthesis. If you’re suffering from ankylosing spondylitis you might find that your back is painful and stiff, particularly in the morning, but that it feels better if you move around.
In rare cases, back pain can be caused by a broken spinal bone or an infection – for example, having an infection in the kidneys can cause pain in the back. It’s unlikely that back pain on its own is a sign of cancer.
How is back pain treated?
You should seek medical attention immediately if:
- You’re experiencing numbness or tingling around the genitals or bottom
- You’re having trouble urinating
- You’re experiencing incontinence
- You’re very weak or unsteady on your feet
These symptoms can indicate a serious condition that requires immediate attention.
If your symptoms are mild it’s advised that you manage them at home rather than seeking medical help.
To help relieve your back pain you should try to stay active and stick to your daily routine. This is because sitting or lying for long periods can actually make the pain worse. You can try doing some gentle exercises and stretches, and keep active by walking, swimming, and doing yoga and pilates.
Painkillers such as anti-inflammatories (e.g. ibuprofen) are also recommended for dealing with back pain. If you can’t take this type of medicine, consult your pharmacist – they may recommend codeine, which can only be taken for a few days at a time. Another option for pain relief is hot and cold packs.
If your back pain doesn’t go away on its own within a few weeks, you should speak to a doctor. They might prescribe a muscle relaxant if you’re having painful spasms. Some tests (e.g. X-ray, MRI scan, blood test) may also be necessary.
Your doctor might refer you for specialist therapy such as a group exercise class, manual therapy (i.e. massages), or psychotherapy. In rare cases, surgery may be required to address the cause of the pain.
You can make an appointment with Doctor Care Anywhere for a confidential online consultation if you’re worried about your back pain.
How can I avoid back pain?
The kinds of treatment methods described above can also be used to reduce your risk of back injury or pain. To keep your back in good shape you should keep active, doing around 150 minutes of exercise a week, and making sure you do regular stretches. You should also avoid sitting for too long.
Other things that can help prevent back pain include:
- Sleeping on a properly supportive mattress
- Losing weight
- Being careful when you lift heavy things
- Being careful not to strain your back when you exercise
- Maintaining good posture
Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP