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Back pain: causes, symptoms and treatments

Laura Harcourt

Written byLaura Harcourt

rej_bhumbra_11

Reviewed byRej Bhumbra

Lady standing in woods with beige fitness top. Looking straight at camera

Summary

1What is back pain?

‘Back pain’ is a general term we use to describe discomfort anywhere in the back including the upper, middle and lower sections...

2Causes of back pain

There are many causes of back pain, with some being more serious than others. And in some cases, there may be two or three problems at play...

3How to treat back pain

The best treatment for back pain depends on its cause, but these self-care tips will go a long way in helping you to both recover from and prevent it.

An ache, a twinge, a sharp stabbing pain. Sound familiar? Yup, it could be good old back pain again.

Back pain is an all too common problem, with many of us experiencing it at some point – it’s thought around 42% of the population in England experience chronic back pain, with more than 80% suffering from lower back pain at some point in their life.1 As well as causing general discomfort, it can make you feel irritable, down and tired.1,2,3,4 

The good news is that most cases of back pain aren’t too serious and there are lots of things you can do at home to treat it. Full of tips and advice, this article will help get you back to feeling your best in no time.

What is back pain?

‘Back pain’ is a general term we use to describe discomfort anywhere in the back including the upper, middle and lower sections.5
In medical terms, back pain can also be put into one of these three categories:6
  • acute back pain – comes on suddenly and usually lasts a few days or weeks
  • subacute back pain – comes on suddenly or over time and lasts four to 12 weeks 
  • chronic back pain – comes on quickly or slowly, is often felt daily and lasts over 12 weeks

Symptoms of back pain

Back pain can range from a dull aching to a shooting, burning or stabbing sensation. And depending on the cause and location of the pain, it can also spread down one or both of your legs.4,6 

Any pain you feel might also be triggered or made worse by bending, twisting, lifting, standing or walking.6,5,7 If you have back pain right now, we’re sure you may already know this.

Other symptoms you might come up against include stiffness, muscle spasms and difficulty standing up straight.4-6

When to see a doctor

Most cases of back pain will improve after a few weeks with some self-care and TLC.2

However, it’s important to make an appointment with your GP as soon as you can if:4,6,8
  • the pain lasts more than a few weeks
  • you’re in severe pain that doesn't improve with rest or walking around slowly after appropriate use of painkillers
  • the pain goes down one or both legs, especially if it travels below your knees
  • you have weakness, numbness, or tingling in one or both legs or where you sit down
  • pain after a fall or injury
  • you’ve lost weight unintentionally
  • you’re having trouble peeing or pooping
  • you have a fever or a history of cancer

Causes of back pain

There are many causes of back pain, with some being more serious than others. And in some cases, there may be two or three problems at play.
From poor posture to medical conditions, these are some of the most common causes of back pain.2,4

Poor posture

Posture is how you hold your body and back when you’re sitting, standing or doing things like bending, lifting, pulling and reaching.9,10 If you work at a desk, you probably have your own version of ‘posture’. 

Having bad posture can cause strain, tension and tightness in your back, resulting in aches and pains, most often in your lower back.9,11 However, posture problems can affect the top of your back and neck too, in a condition called kyphosis.9,11
 

Arthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK and may cause lower back pain.12,13 It’s a degenerative joint disease which causes the tissues in the joints to break down over time, leading to pain, swelling and stiffness.14 

In some cases, arthritis in the spine can lead to the space around the spinal cord narrowing, which causes a condition called spinal stenosis.6,14 

Another type of arthritis, called ankylosing spondylitis, also causes inflammation and stiffness in the spine, resulting in back pain and in some cases can cause fatigue.6,15
 

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens bones. The condition itself doesn’t cause pain, but as the bones in your spine become less dense and more fragile, they’re more prone to breaks as a result of sudden impacts, such as a fall or collapse, which of course causes a lot of pain.6,16 

It’s thought to cause lower back pain in more women than men and can increase with age, low BMI and years of menopause.17 

Read our guide on how to reduce the risk of osteoporosis here.
 

Strains and sprains

Twisting, lifting, overstretching and sudden awkward movements can strain or sprain the muscles and spinal ligaments (tissues that hold the bones of the spine together) in your back, particularly in the lower region.6,18 This can cause painful muscle spasms and cramping (a tight feeling in your muscles), and difficulty moving comfortably.18 

Sometimes, you might even strain your back muscles by sneezing or coughing.19 It’s thought that lower back pain and disk compression within your spine vertebrae could be reduced if your body posture when sneezing is in an upright standing posture or table posture with both hands on the table. Research is limited but it could be something to try.19 

Additionally, if your back pain increases when sneezing or coughing then it can be a cause for concern and you should consult your GP or medical professional.2

For most people, symptoms of a back sprain or strain will improve in about two weeks.18
 

Kidney issues

If you’re feeling pain in your back, right under your ribs, to the left or right of your spine, it might be caused by a problem with your kidneys, like kidney stones or an infection.20,21,22 

Having kidney stones can cause severe, sharp pain in your side and lower back, just below your ribs, which can travel down to your lower tummy and groin.21

If you have a kidney infection, you may also experience pain in your side or your back. You’ll probably have other symptoms too like burning when you pee, a fever, and you might feel or be sick.20,22
 

Other causes of back pain

As well as the ones described above, some other causes of back pain can include:2,6
  • a herniated or ruptured disc (slipped disc)
  • sciatica (a trapped nerve)
  • fibromyalgia (extreme fatigue and pain spread in most areas of your body) 
  • scoliosis (curving of the spine)
  • pregnancy
  • endometriosis
  • a broken bone
  • an infection
  • cancer
 

Back pain risk factors

As well as the main causes of back pain, some risk factors can make you more likely to get back pain, including:4,6,7,23,24 
  • ageing
  • bad posture
  • lack of exercise
  • over-exercising
  • being overweight or obese
  • smoking
  • depression and anxiety
  • having a condition like arthritis or osteoporosis

How to treat back pain

The best treatment for back pain depends on its cause, but these self-care tips will go a long way in helping you to both recover from and prevent it.

Pay attention to your posture

Making small adjustments to your posture can make a huge difference in reducing aches and pains in your back, and also preventing back injuries.25 

Sit or stand up straight with your shoulders down, back and relaxed. Take breaks from long periods of sitting and standing, and stretch regularly to keep your muscles happy and healthy.2,16,25,26 

YouTube videos can be a helpful tool to learn how to stretch your back muscles during the working day. If you can, try seeing a physiotherapist who can help improve your posture and teach you how to move more safely.26
 

Rest and compress

Bed rest can make back pain worse, so instead simply pull back on your normal activities and take it easy.2,6

If you can, hold a hot or cold compress on your back for 15 to 20 minutes, every few hours. This will help bring down the swelling and inflammation you might have, and can also soothe pain.2,6 

Taking over-the-counter painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications can also be helpful in the short term.6
 

Keep your muscles strong

Regular exercise can help keep your back muscles strong and can also contribute to keeping your bones strong and healthy.2,27,28 

Activities like yoga, pilates, walking, weight training, and swimming are great for improving your mobility, posture and core strength, without putting too much strain on your body.4,6,8
 

Take your supplements

Calcium and vitamin D are crucial for keeping our bones strong and healthy. Adults should have 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day, most of which you should be able to get from your diet. The daily recommended calcium intake (700mg) should also be easily obtained from a healthy balanced diet, however, if you struggle to get your intake, daily supplements can help meet this recommended intake and consequently reduce your risk of osteoporosis.29 

There’s also some small evidence to suggest that a herbal remedy called devil’s claw could be used provide some relief from muscle pain. However, the evidence is limited and further studies are needed.30-33 

Getting more omega-3 fatty acids might also help reduce back pain, as well as swelling and stiffness you might have in your spine and joints according to very early-stage research in animal models.34-36 Despite this, the link between omega-3 fatty acids and back pain remains unclear and further research is required.
 

Medical treatments

If your pain is very bad, you may need to see your GP or a specialist for treatment.

Medical treatments for back pain can include medications such as pain relief and muscle relaxants, physical therapy, or procedures like injections, nerve stimulation, and surgery.4,6,37,38
 

The final say

We know that back pain can really ruin your day. 

Whether you’ve been feeling occasional twinges or there’s something more serious going on, we hope the tips in this guide have helped you understand what might have caused your back pain and how you can manage it.

What’s our top takeaway? Remember that while rest is important, so is movement. Stay active but be kind and gentle with your body. Follow our advice and we’re sure you’ll be back to normal in no time.

Disclaimer

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. While we strive for accuracy and balance, please be aware that this article may discuss products available for purchase through Holland & Barrett. Consult a healthcare professional before making any health-related decisions.
 

Sources

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