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Whether you feel occasional twinges or something more serious, this guide will help you understand why back pain happens and how to manage it
From stiffness to sciatica, back pain is extremely common – eight out of 10 of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives.1 Usually, it isn’t serious and will get better within a few weeks. However, sometimes it can have a real impact on your life: back pain is the largest single cause of disability in the UK.2 But you don’t have to suffer in silence.
So, what actually causes the pain? Your back is made up of muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones, with discs between the segments of the spine that provide cushioning. Anything that goes wrong with any of these parts – such as a strained muscle or injury – can result in pain, although in many cases it’s not possible to pinpoint an exact cause.5
There are some common triggers for backache and back pain, including:
Sometimes, but not always. Here’s what you can do to look after your back:10,11
Most of the time, back pain gets better on its own and you may not even need to see your GP.12 To ease the pain and help your back recover more quickly, try the following tips:
Stay active – while doctors once thought it was best to rest with back pain, it’s now considered much better to keep moving. You should continue to go about your everyday activities, such as walking to the shops, doing some light housework or gardening, or a bit of gentle DIY.13
Consider some herbal help – a 2014 Cochrane Review of evidence for herbs for lower back pain found there is some evidence that alternative treatments can help with lower back pain, although more research is needed. The review found taking 60mg daily of devil’s claw or 240mg daily of willow bark had a positive effect on back pain.14
Apply hot or cold compresses – these can ease pain, according to the NHS, and talk to your pharmacist or GP about taking painkillers.15
Up your vitamin D intake Indian researchers recently discovered those with low vitamin D levels also suffered from chronic low back pain. It’s thought the vitamin may have a role to play in reducing the immune system’s inflammatory response.
Limit your time on mobile devices Whenever you use gadgets like tablets or smartphones, your neck and spine are bending forwards. Too much screen time could also be interrupting your body clock, leading to insomnia.
De-clutter your handbag Carrying heavy bags on one side of your body can throw the spine out of alignment. Switch to a rucksack or cross-body bag, and give your handbag a regular clear out.
Ditch the high heels There’s strong research to show that wearing high heels every day can contribute to back problems over time. Alternate between flats and mid-heels, and keep the killer heels for nights out.
Try complementary therapies A study published in the British Medical Journal found practicing the Alexander Technique could help relieve back pain, while NICE – the government body that approves medicines in the UK – now recommends acupuncture for non-specific lower back pain.
See your GP if your pain doesn’t get better after a few weeks or worsens, or it gets in the way of daily life. You may be referred to a specialist or a chartered physiotherapist, or may need to see another practitioner, such as an osteopath.16 Rarely, back pain can be a sign of a more serious condition that needs urgent attention. See your GP immediately or call 111 straight away if you have back pain and any of the following symptoms:17