What causes back pain and how to deal with it

Man with back pain. (Getty Images)
Back pain is very common but can be debilitating. (Getty Images)

Back pain is an all-too-common annoyance, with more than 80 out of 100 of us experiencing it in our lower back at some point in our lives.

For some of us it might just be a short period of discomfort, while for others it can last for far longer than we'd like, or even keep returning.

But why do we experience back pain in the first place, and what can we do about it?

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What causes back pain

Suffering from back pain can be particularly stressful because the cause isn't always 100% clear, as it can be brought on by many things. The good news is that it usually gets better on its own.

One common cause, according to the NHS, is an injury like a pulled muscle, or strain. Sometimes medical conditions like a slipped disc, sciatica (a trapped nerve) or ankylosing spondylitis (a long-term condition where the spine and other areas of the body become inflamed) can also be the culprit.

Separately, while back pain can be caused physically, non-physical factors are also thought to influence your pain, such as emotional stress from anxiety, depression, or personal issues, and lifestyle factors like disturbed sleep, poor diet, a lack of activity and smoking.

While back pain can have an impact on both your body and mind and can be debilitating, it should ease of its own accord. That said, very rarely, it can be a sign of a more serious problem like a broken bone, cancer or an infection.

How to ease back pain

Woman walking her dog. (Getty Images)
Try to continue with your daily activities despite the pain, if you're able to. (Getty Images)

You should expect back pain to improve on its own within a few weeks and you can help this process with some at-home care as your first port of call. And contrary to what you might think, too much rest is not a good thing.

The health service suggests:

  • staying active and continuing with your daily activities

  • taking anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen (paracetamol is not recommended on its own but may be used with another painkiller)

  • using an ice pack or frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel to ease pain and swelling

  • using a heat pack or hot water bottle also wrapped in a tea towel to help joint stiffness and muscle spasms

  • trying back-pain tailored exercises and stretches (stop if your pain gets worse and see a GP for advice first)

The NHS website also urges, "do not stay in bed for long periods of time".

Activities you enjoy and that work for you, like walking, swimming, yoga and pilates, may also help with easing the pain.

Read more: What does your poo say about you?

How to sleep with back pain

Woman sleeping. (Getty Images)
Break the vicious cycle of letting your pain get in the way of your sleep. (Getty Images)

When we're in pain, we need our sleep even more to help us recover, but of course in a vicious cycle, the pain itself can make this hard to do. As well as incorporating the recommended self-help tips into your day, to help make your night easier, there are certain sleeping positions you can try.

An East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust leaflet states that if your symptoms are made worse by walking and standing activities, try starting with these positions in bed:

  • lie on your least painful side with knees and hips slightly bent, support head with pillows as desired and one or two pillows placed between your knees

  • lie on your back, head supported with pillows as desired and one or two pillows placed beneath your knees with heels rested upon the bed

And if your symptoms are made worse by sitting and bending activities, it suggests starting with these sleeping positions:

  • if sleeping on your front, try placing one or two pillows beneath your lower stomach and hips

  • additional support can be provided by placing pillows beneath your ankles

"If you don’t follow either of the above patterns and your symptoms are worse with any position for a prolonged period of time, try and find which positions benefit you the most from either section and work on those initially," the leaflet adds.

Read more: Is napping ever a good idea? How to nap without damaging your health

When to get help for back pain

The NHS advises you should see a GP if your back pain doesn't improve after trying to treat it at home for a few weeks, your symptoms are stopping you from doing your day-to-day activities, the pain is getting severe or worse, you're worried about it and you're struggling to deal with it.

They may be able to prescribe painkillers or medicines to help relax your muscles, or offer other treatments like group exercise sessions and physiotherapy, 'manual therapy' (done by a trained massage therapist), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help you cope with the pain, or in some instances a procedure to 'seal off' some of the nerves in your back or even surgery.

It may also be worth considering what stress you are under.

You should ask for an urgent GP appointment or call 111 if you have back pain as well as a high temperature, you've lost weight without trying, you have a lump or swelling in your back or your back shape has changed, the pain doesn't improve after rest or is worse at night, it is made worse when you sneeze, cough, or poo, or the pain is coming from the top of your back (between your shoulders), rather than your lower back.

Call 999 or go to A&E if you have back pain and pain, tingling, weakness or numbness in both legs, numbness or tingling around genitals or buttocks, difficulty peeing, loss of bladder or bowel control, chest pain, or it started after a serious accident.

For more information visit the NHS' website page on back pain or the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust's leaflet on back pain (with or without leg pain).

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