The causes of back pain

It’s not surprising that so many people suffer with back pain, either occasionally or chronically. The back has no fewer than 149 joints, each with its own cluster of tendons, ligaments and muscles. Yet we often subject this complex structure to heavy loads and stresses.

Poor posture, careless lifting and many everyday tasks from weeding the garden to carrying heavy shopping can cause painful strains and sprains. Sometimes you simply may not know why back pain has appeared.

In most cases the cause is ‘mechanical’ (that is, not caused by disease), which means the pain will usually get better over time.

Woman at a desk holding her lower back

The symptoms of back pain

Back pain can be debilitating, affecting many aspects of everyday life and making even sleeping uncomfortable and difficult.

Depending on the cause, pain in the back can be felt anywhere from the neck to the hips. Lumbar pain in the lower part of the back is particularly common and often associated with incorrect lifting.

The pain is often associated with movement, or a particular posture or position. However, it is generally advisable not to immobilise the back but try to continue your daily activities as far as possible.

It’s advisable to see your doctor if:

  • The pain doesn't start to improve within a few weeks
  • The pain stops you doing your day-to-day activities
  • The pain is very severe or gets worse over time
  • Associated with the back pain you have any disturbance in your bowel or bladder continence function

Avoiding and managing
back pain

It pays to be constantly aware of the risk of injuring your back, especially when you need to lift something be it a suitcase or a grandchild.

Follow good lifting practice. Keep your back straight and use the strength in your legs to lift. If in any doubt, get help.

When your back is painful, try to stay active if you can. Resting for long periods is likely to make the pain worse. Exercises such as swimming and Pilates can help and they’re a welcome distraction.

Take care of your weight. Being overweight can put strain on your back that can lead to problems.

Applying heat or cold can be helpful. You can make use of things you have at home, such as a hot-water bottle and a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth.

Try to stay positive through your back pain and see your pharmacist or GP if you need more help. You may be referred to a physiotherapist who can recommend specific exercises for your condition.