Back pain can be experienced as a result of injury, activity or a medical condition. As people get older the chances of developing lower back pain in particular increases. This can be as a result of degenerative disk disease, or more common – occupational hazards.
The human back consists of a complex structure of muscles, ligaments, tendons, disks, and bones. All of which work together to support the body and allow movement. The spine is cushioned with disks. If damage to these occur it can cause back pain. Many factors can lead to the pain from strain, medical conditions to poor posture.
One of the most common type of back pain commonly stems from strain, tension, or injury. This may be the result of:
- strained muscles or ligaments
- a muscle spasm
- muscle tension
- damaged disks
- injuries, fractures, or falls
- lifting something improperly
- lifting something that is too heavy
- making an abrupt and awkward movement
Movement and posture
Focusing specifically on the workplace, when seated, if a ‘hunched position’ is adopted when using computers or sitting at a desk, this can result in increased back and shoulder problems over a period of time. Back pain can be the result of everyday activities also. These include, but are not limited to:
- muscle tension
- bending awkwardly
- pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying something
- standing or sitting for long periods
- straining the neck forward, such as when using a computer
The main symptom of back pain is an ache or pain located at any point on the back that may at times radiate down to the buttocks and legs. Women are more likely to experience back pain than men, due to their physiological makeup. This can often be linked with pregnancy, weight gain, and occupational hazard. In most cases the pain will subside with the occasional use of over-the-counter medication. However, where other factors come into play, seeing a doctor is most definitely recommended. For example, if you experience any of the following with your back pain:
- inflammation or swelling on the back
- persistent back pain – irrespective of resting it
- pain down the legs
- pain that reaches below the knees
- a recent injury, blow or trauma to the back
- incontinence or difficulty urinating / passing stools
- numbness around the genitals
- numbness around the anus
- numbness around the buttocks
- unintentional weight loss
Seeking clarity on the pain may be achieved through a consultation whereby the doctor will ask details on where the pain is and whether it resonates elsewhere. If required, an imaging scan and other tests may be requested. Imaging scans help to determine if there is any soft tissue damage, tendons, ligaments and even bones. Whereas X-rays will show issues related to bones, and reveal any muscular or spinal cord damage.
Other professionals who can also support back pain include:
- A chiropractor: diagnosis is through touch, or palpation, and a visual examination. Specialise in the spine, although may focus on other bones / joints / muscles.
- An osteopath: diagnosis is through palpation and visual inspection. They specialise in treating the skeleton and muscles.
- A physical therapist: diagnosis is through touch, and involves applying pressure and massaging areas where pain is felt.
- Shiatsu: also known as finger pressure therapy, is a type of massage where pressure is applied along energy lines in the body.
- Acupuncture: consists of inserting fine needles in specific points in the body. Acupuncture can help the body release its natural painkillers – endorphins whilst stimulating nerve and muscle tissue.
- Yoga: requires the person to take specific poses, movements, and breathing exercises. This may help strengthen the back muscles and improve posture.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): is a popular therapy for patients with chronic back pain. The TENS machine delivers small electric pulses into the body through electrodes that are placed on the skin.
A number of measures can be implemented to prevent or limit back pain. Whilst these may not entirely irradicate back pain, they can assist in reducing the severity.
Exercise: Regular exercise helps to manage weight whilst boosting heart health. Core-strengthening exercise can help with strengthening the back and abdominal muscles. Flexibility training focuses on improving core, spine, hip and upper leg flexibility. It is essential that if high impact exercise is your forte then advice from either a health or fitness professional is sought to ensure further damage is not caused.
Diet: A healthy diet can helps control body weight. However it is essential that you consume sufficient calcium and Vitamin D to strengthen bones.
Smoking: Research has found that smokers tend to experience more back pain, than those who do not smoke. It is unclear what and why there is a correlation.
Posture when standing: Standing upright, with you head facing forward, back straight, and balancing your weight evenly on both feet, puts little strain on the back.
Posture when sitting: When sitting, try to keep your knees and hips level and keep your feet flat on the floor, or use a footstool to elevate your feet a few inches off the floor. When sat upright, ideally there should be support in the small of your back.
Lifting: When lifting things, use your legs to do the lifting, rather than your back. You should never bend at the waist, rather lower yourself, bending at the knees, and bringing the item close to the body prior to coming to a standing position.
Do not lift and twist at the same time: Where items are particularly heavy, more than one person should lift the item. You should be standing up straight and looking ahead, so to prevent unnecessary pressure and strain on the spine.
Moving things: When moving heavy items, try to push them across the floor, as opposed to pull. This puts less strain on the back.
Shoes: Wearing flat shoes distributes weight evenly, therefore putting less strain on the back due to maintaining good posture.
Driving: Many of us use our vehicles on a daily basis. It is therefore important to have proper support for your back when driving. The wing mirrors should be aligned so you do not need to twist when looking in them. The seat should be positioned so that the pedals are squarely in front of your feet.
Bed: There are a number of mattresses available on the market. However, ideally a mattress that keeps your spine straight, while at the same time supporting the weight of your shoulders and buttocks, is the most ideal.