Aches and pains are not uncommon in the lower back, but they are usually
unserious and go away just the way they come. In a majority of individuals, back pain lasts only a few weeks, but in others, it may stretch to more than a couple of months. When it lasts longer than 3 months, it is termed chronic.
There are tons of possible causes of back pain, and no matter how hard they try, the doctor sometimes may not be able to tell you exactly the source of the pain. Here are some common things that can cause back pain:
• Straining the muscles in the back by lifting heavy objects
• Sitting, standing or lying for long in a bad posture, such as while
watching the TV or waiting on the queue.
• Wear and tear on the bones of the spine as one gets older.
It may appear strange that some people find that being upset or anxious may tense up their back muscles and cause pain. But most people never know the cause of their back pain. If you have back pain for a short time there’s usually no need to have an X-ray or scan. It’s not likely to show anything useful.
How does this pain occur?
You may be able to identify a particular situation that suddenly triggers the back pain. It may be severe at the onset or gradually progress from mild to severe over a variable period of time. In a lot of people, this pain is only in their back, but some others feel pain down one or both legs as well. This is usually due to a nerve getting trapped or compressed, and may be associated with some numbness or tingling sensation. If this happens, see a doctor.
What treatments work?
On a few occasions when the exact cause of the back pain is known, the pain usually goes away once the cause is taken care of. Otherwise, the doctor just gives some treatments or combination of treatments to help ease the pain and keep you moving.
Things you can do to help yourself
Usually, when people have a back pain, especially really serious ones, what naturally comes to mind is staying in bed and giving it a rest. But research shows that staying active can reduce your pain and help you to recover faster. Staying in bed for a fairly long time makes your joints stiff, your muscles get weaker and the pain can only get worse. Even if staying active doesn’t make the pain get better, it is unlikely to do any harm. You just have to tolerate a bit of discomfort for a while, and not do anything that worsens the pain. It is best to see a doctor first before you try to exercise with a serious pain or one that radiates down your leg.
Pain killers are quite effective in reducing back pain for a short while. They may be taken regularly or only when the pain gets really severe.
Simple pain medications like paracetamol or ibuprofen can be bought over-the-counter without prescription. If these don’t help, the doctor may then prescribe stronger ones like codeine, diclofenac, tramadol and naproxen.
Side effects may occur in about 1 out of 10 people taking pain medications, but generally, they don’t usually occur if they are taken correctly. Paracetamol in large doses can damage the liver. When codeine and tramadol are taken for a long time, one may find it hard to stop them. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and diclofenac may cause ulcers or other problems in the stomach especially if they are taken regularly without food. Large doses of NSAIDs taken for a long time increase slightly the risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. People with heart problems should not take diclofenac.
Although the benefits haven’t been well established, spinal manipulation might help reduce back pain a little, but probably for only a short while. This involves moving parts of the spine to adjust the small joints between the bones to relieve pain and stiffness. There are properly trained and registered professionals who do this, and serious side effects seem to be rare.
Many other alternative treatments have been tried for back pain. They include:Some people may find them helpful. But there’s not enough research to show whether they work. They include:
• Acupuncture; inserting thin clean needles through the skin at points
where “energy” is thought to be “blocked”.
• Massage; designed to relax you and ease tension in your muscles.
• Temperature treatments; used to heat or cool your muscles, to sooth the pain.
• Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS); using a small, battery-operated device to send small pulses of electricity through your skin to stimulate nerves in your spine and possibly block pain messages to your brain.
What will happen to me?
Back pain can make your life quite difficult. It becomes more of a chore to get dressed, move around, or sleep. But, however much it hurts, your back will probably get better by itself. Most back pain lasts less than two weeks. About 9 in 10 people are completely better in less than six weeks. And most people need less than a week off work.
If back pain becomes chronic, however, you may find it harder to recover. You should see your doctor if your back pain isn’t getting better so you might get a referral to a specialist in back pains.
There is a chance of backaches recurring after the first episode, usually within a year, although it may be less severe subsequently.