This page will provide you with information about back pain. For further details, please speak to your consultant.
What characterises back pain?
Your spine is a complex interconnecting network of bones, nerves, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments. The central feature of your spine is the vertebral column, which consists of 33 separate bones called the vertebrae, including the bones of the sacrum and coccyx. The vertebrae are separated by intervertebral discs, which have a crucial role as shock absorbers.
Back pain can take many forms and is a problem that can affect anyone at any time of their life. As there are so many causes of back aches, tensions or stiffness it can sometimes be difficult to establish the root of the problem but usually it relates to a strain in a muscle, tendon or ligament. In most cases, the condition will get better when treated with painkillers and keeping mobile, unless there is more serious damage to the structure of your spine.
You can help reduce the likelihood of developing back pain and minimise the risk of injury by following an everyday checklist:
- Keep your spine straight with good posture
- Maintain a healthy weight for your size to avoid undue strain on your joints
- Take care when lifting objects and try to carry weights that are evenly distributed
- Gentle exercises such as swimming, walking or cycling can help strengthen stomach and back muscles
- Always warm up and cool down before and after exercise or sport, with appropriate stretches
- Stop smoking, as smoking can cause tissue damage.
Symptoms of back pain
Lower back pain
Soreness, tension or stiffness in the lower back area is the most common complaint, often referred to as ‘non-specific’ back pain. Lower back pain can result from awkward twisting, lifting something heavy or as the result of poor posture.
Upper or middle back pain
This area is known as the thoracic spine and pain in the upper or middle back can occur anywhere between the base of your neck and bottom of your ribcage and symptoms include dull, burning or sharp pain. You may also have pain in your arms, legs or chest. If you experience weakness in your arms or legs, a numb or tingling feeling in your arms, legs, chest or stomach area, or are suffering from a loss of bladder or bowel control you should seek immediate medical attention.
Causes of back pain
For most cases of non-specific back pain, it will be difficult to identify the specific cause. However, there are several factors that can increase the likelihood of developing or aggravating back pain:
- Spending extended periods of time in a standing, sitting or bending position
- Poor posture
- Obesity (with a BMI of 30 or over)
- Carrying or pulling excessive loads, not taking due care when lifting
- Repetitive strain injury: overuse of muscles during sports or other activities
- Overstretching or awkwardly twisting your back
Sometimes the cause of the pain is because of damage to parts of your spine, such as:
- A slipped disc – when one of your intervertebral discs herniates, putting pressure on the nerves
- Fractures – fractured, cracked or broken bones in your back
- Spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spinal canal, causing nerves to get trapped
- Osteoporosis – a progressive disease where bones lose density and could become prone to fracture
- Osteoarthritis – a degenerative disease that can affect the joints of your spine
- Spondylolisthesis - displacement of the vertebra out of position
- Rheumatoid arthritis – an inflammatory condition that can affect tissues and organs and particularly flexible joints
- Degenerative disc disease – where the intervertebral discs wear down, causing chronic back pain
This page is intended for information purposes only and should not replace advice that your relevant health professional would give you.