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Why Am I Having Back Pain?

by | May 11, 2021 | Resources

What is back pain?

Back pain, particularly in the lower back, is a common symptom that most people will experience at some point in their life. It is often not due to serious disease, and the exact cause cannot be directly determined, though it has a clear trigger in some cases.

Back pain can be described as acute (<6 weeks) or chronic (>6 weeks) and may limit your functional abilities such as walking around, bending over, twisting, or lifting things.

 

Can back pain be serious?

Though common, back pain can be serious as it may limit day-to-day activities and prevent you from working or continuing your normal hobbies. In more worrying causes of back pain, there may be damage to the spinal cord or nerves in the back, resulting in weakness and sensation changes around the body, including electrical sensations shooting down the leg. These can vary in severity from being mild and range up to complete sensation loss or paralysis.

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What causes back pain?

  • Non-specific lower back pain (most common) – this is not related to any specific or underlying disease and may be due to a sprain of a ligament or muscle
  • Disc herniation – when a disc between two of the bones of the spine pushes into the spinal cord or its branching nerves; this can be caused by incorrect lifting of objects
  • Arthritis of the spine – this can occur due to wear and tear in a similar way as arthritis in other joints
  • Inflammatory disorders of the spine – pain and stiffness particularly worse in the morning and on resting
  • Trauma – direct damage to the back causing fractures or damage to the muscles surrounding the spinal cord
  • Osteomyelitis – an infection in the spinal cord, more common in individuals who use intravenous drugs
  • Spread of cancer to the bone (metastases)
  • Kidney infection – pain in the sides of the back that might also be associated with high temperature, vomiting and other urinary symptoms
  • Kidney stones – very severe pain that comes on quickly

 

When should I see a doctor for back pain?

Non-specific back pain is very common and many can treat it at home with pain relief and gentle exercise, so it is not always necessary to see a doctor about your back pain. However, there can be times when you should see a doctor to have more serious causes rule out.

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See a doctor immediately (within a few hours) if you have:

  • Back pain after an injury to the spine – which could indicate a fracture
  • Back pain that comes on quickly and is very severe – could be signs of a kidney stone
  • Back pain with:
    • Weakness and, or, numbness in both legs
    • Passing stool involuntarily (faecal incontinence)
    • Unable to pass urine or passing less than normal
    • A lack of sensation when wiping after opening your bowels
    • Unable to get an erection

    These could be features of cauda equina, a serious back condition where nerves become trapped, and without prompt treatment could result in paralysis and other nerve related problems

 

See a doctor urgently if you have:

  • Pain that continues to worsen progressively
  • Constant pain that is not eased by resting and persists overnight
  • Pain in the bones of the upper spine
  • Pain or numbness going down one leg (sciatica)
  • Pain and stiffness that is worse in the morning and eased by activity
  • You are under 20 or over 50
  • Have had a previous cancer
  • Fever, weight loss or night sweats

 

What can I do about my back pain?

  • HEALTHY EATING
    • Maintaining a healthy BMI puts less strain on the joints and decreases the likelihood of problems like arthritis
  • STAY ACTIVE
    • Keep moving. Prolonged bed rest can lead to muscle wasting and make the pain worse and remain for longer
  • POSTURE
    • Check your posture, especially if you’re sitting for long periods at a computer
  • STRETCHING
    • Back stretches can help with relieving pain and stiffness
  • KEEP WELL HYDRATED
    • Drinking lots of water keeps the discs between your spinal bones hydrated and helps with cushioning
  • USE HEAT AND ICE PACKS
    • Alternating between heat and ice packs can be soothing and can help with relieving pain
  • EXERCISE
    • Physiotherapy and home exercises has shown an improvement in long term outcomes for someone with back pain, helping to resolve it faster and reduce severity. This includes getting back to work sooner rather than later
  • MEDICATION
    • Simple pain killers such as paracetamol, and ibuprofen, can be effective at managing pain. If it’s not settling your doctor may provide pain relief for your back

 

References

Patient.info: Back Pain

NHS UK: Back Pain

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