Back pain is very common, with levels of pain ranging from mild to severe. The spine and back muscles link our limbs and head together, so sometimes, even though the problem lies in the back, you may feel pain in your knee or arm.
Types of back pain
Sometimes it isn't possible to work out what's causing back pain. We call this 'non-specific back pain'. However, sometimes the cause is clearer. The most common causes of back pain are:
• Musculoskeletal, as a result of injury or overwork of the muscles, ligaments and tendons that support the spine
• Arthritis, an inflammation of the joints formed between vertebrae (the small bones that stack on top of each other to form the spine)
• Compression of one of the nerves – known as a 'pinched nerve'
Musculoskeletal causes of back pain
Sprains and strains in the back can cause this type of back pain. It's usually relieved within a few weeks. Getting plenty of rest and applying cold compresses as soon as possible after the injury can help to ease musculoskeletal pains. Sometimes, painkillers may be necessary. Your pharmacist will be able to advise you.
Occasionally, there's deeper inflammation of the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the back, causing a more long-term kind of pain. This type of pain often affects the lower back which is subjected to the highest pressures and burdens. Lifting heavy objects or standing or sitting for long periods of time can cause lower back pain.
If rest and regular painkillers aren't enough to manage your back pain, make an appointment with your Doctor who may:
• Prescribe you stronger anti-inflammatory medication
• Refer you for physiotherapy
• Advise you about lifestyle changes
Arthritis of the back
These are the most common origins of arthritis in the back:
• Osteoarthritis – due to the wear and tear of protective cartilage around the bones in joints. It is common in elderly people and those who lift heavy loads regularly
• Rheumatoid arthritis – caused when the body starts attacking its own tissues. This causes pain, inflammation and stiffness
• Ankylosing spondylitis – a chronic condition when the spine becomes inflamed. It's also associated with extreme fatigue, and most commonly appears in teenagers and young adults
Sometimes nerves become irritated as they pass between vertebrae in the spine, causing nerve pain in the area that the nerve supplies. This means that you can get shoulder pain with origin in the neck, and leg pain with origin in the lower back – this is known as sciatica.
Nerve compression can be caused by a number of things, including arthritis and bulging of the disc. If you get burning pains, especially at night, you should speak to your Doctor.
• Rest when the pain is severe but try not to become inactive – regular exercise can actually help long-term back pain
• Consider taking painkillers. Your pharmacist can help you to choose the most suitable option for you
• If you are still in pain, speak to your Doctor
• If you are experiencing severe, persistent pain, lose weight, lose your appetite, experience weakness of the arms or legs, experience tingling sensation of the arms or legs, or become incontinent (unable to control your urine or stools), see your Doctor as a matter of urgency