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Many people suffer from back pain and it can have a variety of causes. If you or a family member has back pain, there are many things you can do to help recover and prevent the pain from returning.
What you need to know about your back
Your spine is made up of stacked bones called vertebrae. They are arranged in three natural curves:
- cervical – the curve inward at your neck
- thoracic – the curve outward in the middle
- lumbar – the curve inward in your lower back.
Strong, flexible muscles and ligaments help maintain these curves. Soft cushions called discs act as shock absorbers between the bones. Nerves run through the holes in the vertebrae and branch out to your body.
Causes of back pain
Back pain usually originates in the spine and the muscles that support it. You could get back pain or a back injury through being out of shape and under stress, or if you have poor posture or strain your back in exercise or activity.
- The bones of the spine can develop arthritis, compress or pinch nerves causing the nerve to become irritated.
- Discs can wear out or lose their shape and support, or they can tear or bulge.
- Muscles can overtire and weaken or become inflexible. A weak abdomen cannot help support your back. Obesity puts extra stress on the back muscles.
- Ligaments can be over-stretched and cause the bones to lose their support.
Back pain may also be caused by kidney, gastrointestinal or heart disorders. It may be caused by other organs or by a complication of other diseases.
If you have back pain, see your doctor. They may suggest treatment or refer you to another professional who can help.
Self-care for back pain
- Try to get back to your usual daily activities and work as soon as possible. Only change your normal activities if they cause severe pain.
- Avoid demanding or heavy contact sports, and activities that may worsen back discomfort such as repeated stooping, bending or twisting.
Keep yourself comfortable:
- wear comfy shoes with low heels
- use an upright chair with low back support
- ensure your work surface is at a comfortable height
- sleep on a firm mattress (place boards under it if necessary). If you sleep on your back try a pillow under your knees, and if you sleep on your side put one between your knees.
- Do things that help you relax such as walking, listening to music or having a bath.
- Take regular pain relief (eg, paracetamol) as directed. You might find an anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or aspirin helpful. Use topical ointments containing menthol and salicylates, such as Deep Heat, to help reduce pain.
Use hot or cold compresses to relieve pain, whichever works best for you. Alternating heat and cold may help.
- Apply ice or cold packs to the painful area for 10–20 minutes every 2–4 hours. Wrap a plastic bag of ice (or a bag of frozen vegetables) in a cloth or light towel. Never place ice directly on your skin.
- Apply a moist, warm compress, a warm wheat bag or covered hot water bottle to the painful area for 20–30 minutes several times a day. Keep the compress warm for best effect.
If your back pain is not helped by the self-care tips above, or continues or worsens after exercising, see your doctor.
Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.
- Do not give aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) or aspirin-containing products to anyone 18 years or younger because of the risk of a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with food or milk to prevent stomach irritation. Do not give NSAIDs to anyone with:
- NSAID-induced asthma
- increased risk of bleeding, such as ulcer disease, a bleeding disorder, if taking blood thinners (anticoagulants), or following surgery, significant trauma or major dental work
- an allergy to NSAIDs.
Good posture is important to keep your bones, nerves, muscles, ligaments and discs working well together. Keeping your muscles toned and exercised is the key to maintaining good posture and preventing back pain.
A health care professional, such as your GP, a physiotherapist or orthopaedic or sports medicine specialist, may be able to suggest exercises for flexibility, strength and stability. If you exercise your back daily with the right routine you will strengthen and improve the flexibility of your spine.
Gradually increase your general fitness by walking, cycling or swimming for 20–30 minutes each day.
Doing too much activity or doing too little are both harmful to your back. If you push yourself too hard, injury can result. On the other hand, if you are out of shape you won’t be able to maintain good posture. This may result in undue stress to your spine.
Emotional stress can make a back problem worse, contributing to muscle strains and spasms.
Other tips to keep your back healthy
- If you sit for long periods, raise your hips slightly higher than your knees by placing a slender pillow under your hips, and support the lower curve of your back with another pillow.
- If you stand for long periods, place one foot on a stool.
- Change your position during the day by having both standing and sitting tasks, and take frequent breaks.
- Learn how to lift, reach, push and pull correctly. Let your legs do most of the lifting by bending them, not your back, when lifting. Hold items close to your body even if they aren’t heavy.
- Don’t smoke, because nicotine decreases blood flow to your back. Injuries occur more often and healing takes longer in smokers.