Types of Back Pain and How to Manage Them
- Back pain is a common problem experienced by people of all ages. Problems associated with back pain can be debilitating and uncomfortable.1 Understanding your back pain can help you to find the best way to manage it.
- There are two types of back pain that can be categorised depending on how long the pain lasts.
- Acute back pain is short-term pain that develops quickly but doesn’t last too long. It can often occur as your body’s response to an injury, for example, you might lift something awkwardly and suddenly feel acute back pain which then resolves in less than 3 months.
- Chronic back pain is long-term pain that lasts for more than 3 months, or beyond the time expected for an injury to heal. Chronic back pain can be caused by illnesses such as arthritis or other musculoskeletal conditions, but often is not caused by a particular condition.
- In fact, most back pain is not caused by a particular condition – this is known as non-specific back pain.
What is back pain?
Back pain is commonly described as a pain in the lower back, but it can be felt anywhere on your spine. For example, it can affect the lower part of your spine (the lumbar spine), the upper back (the thoracic spine), the neck (cervical spine) and tailbone (coccyx).
Back pain can vary in severity and is experienced differently from person-to-person – from a sharp sudden pain to a dull ache. Back pain can also impact people mentally as well as physically. For example, you may find you feel more irritable or short-tempered when you’re suffering from back pain. Short-term back pain that is not caused by a serious condition can improve over time, if managed appropriately.
Signs and symptoms of back pain
Back pain can be felt anywhere from the neck to the buttocks. Back pain symptoms vary from person-to-person, but can include:
- Pain, spasms or stiffness in the back
- Tingling or numbness
- Pain in one or both legs
- Limited movement in the torso
- Difficulty with daily activities (e.g., walking, sitting, lifting)
- Reduced reflexes, strength, and sensation in the legs
- Tenderness in the spine
- Feelings of irritability and frustration
Signs and symptoms of acute and chronic back pain can be similar, but the biggest differentiator is the length of time the pain is experienced. Since chronic pain lasts longer than acute pain, it is more likely to be associated with mood changes, such as feelings of distress or worry about recovery. People with chronic back pain may also develop a fear of moving or working as they may worry that their symptoms will get worse.
Causes of back pain
More often than not, the cause of low back pain is unknown. Lifestyle factors and activities that may be linked to back pain include:
- Work that involves lifting, bending and awkward postures
- Obesity (being very overweight)
- Engaging in physically demanding tasks.
How to relieve back pain
Movement and staying active is important to help your body to get back to its normal, functioning self. Moving normally also encourages your spine to move in its normal way. If your doctor recommends it, try to continue doing your usual activities like going to work and house chores if you can. If you brace yourself or restrict normal movements, it can make your recovery time longer. But always be safe – if it feels too painful, see your doctor so they can advise you on some helpful exercises to try.
Stretch and strengthen
Help to support your back by strengthening your muscles. Try doing an exercise you enjoy each day and gradually increase the time you spend doing it over time to help you to build strength and improve flexibility. For example, you can start with 15–20 minutes of yoga, pilates or walking every day, then increase this to 30 minutes to an hour as you get stronger.
Readjust your posture
Maintaining good posture is key to making sure your back pain doesn’t get worse. If you sit at a table or desk, make sure you have a comfy chair and that your desk is at the right height. When your back is straight and resting against the seatback, your feet should be flat on the floor with your knees in line with your hips. Your computer screen should be an arm’s length away with the top of the screen at eye level.
Keep a healthy weight
Excess fat can place additional strain on your back and cause inflammation in your body. Try to keep a healthy weight by following a balanced diet and ensuring there’s some physical activity in your daily routine. If you do need to lose some weight, speak to your doctor for more information on how to make small lifestyle changes that can bring you to a healthier weight and reduce the strain on your back.
Add hot or cold
Applying heat or cold to the painful area of your back may provide temporary pain relief. Try holding a hot water bottle on your back for 20 minutes, and then gently massage the area to help relax the muscles. Holding a cold item, such as an ice pack or bag or frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel, against the area for 20 minutes at a time can also help to relieve pain.
Stress can create tension in your body and make back pain worse. Take steps to avoid stressful situations, for example, take time to plan ahead to prevent last minute stress. You can manage your stress by taking time out to relax during your day, and using relaxation techniques such as meditation and deep breathing.
Make small lifestyle changes
Making small adjustments in your daily lifestyle can help to improve your back pain. For example, avoid wearing high heeled shoes which can place strain on your back. Cut down on smoking as this increases your chances of developing persistent back pain. If you often pick up heavy items, use assistive equipment or ask for help. It’s also a good idea to learn how to lift properly – squat down and hold the object as close to your body as practical, then lift using your legs and keeping your back straight.
Try pain relief medication
Pain relief medications can help to keep you moving. Nurofen contains ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory pain reliever that provides temporary relief of pain and fever, as well as inflammation. Nurofen can provide effective relief of body pain such as muscle or back pain for up to 8 hours* – but if you find you have recurring pain on a regular basis, or pain that doesn’t ease, see your doctor.
*Mehlisch et al. 2010. Sponsored by RB.
When to seek medical help
You should see a doctor:
- if you are in pain or need advice on medicines you can take
- if your back pain persists
- if your back pain worsens, or you develop other symptoms
- if you are concerned about your pain for any reason
This article is for general information only and not intended as a substitute for medical advice. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health-related matters, always consult your healthcare professional.
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