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CONDITIONS A-Z

Back Pain

Back pain, the chief cause of work place absence in the UK, affects an average of 8 of 10 adults in this country at some point in their lives. It accounts for about 7 million GP visits annually in the UK.

Back Pain Overview

Back pain is most common in the age group of 35-55 years, possibly as a direct result of occupational hazards. Postmenopausal women are also more prone to back pain due to the development of osteoporosis. While one of several factors may be responsible, symptoms are similar, and most episodes of back pain will respond quickly to over the counter pain medications, rest and gentle exercise . However, you should seek a doctor's opinion if the pain persists, doesn't respond to treatment, or if it is associated with other symptoms.

What is Back Pain?

Pain in the back may occur in any region from the base of the skull to the hips. It may arise from muscles, nerves, bones, joints or other supporting structures in the spine. The symptom may arise suddenly or gradually. As most episodes are self-limiting (get better by themselves), back pain usually does not warrant immediate medical attention. Occasionally, however, it may signal the presence of a serious underlying health condition.

Common Causes of Back Pain

Back pain may arise from a variety of causes, some of which can be due to poor posture and the way in which the back is used. Pulled muscles, or muscle strains, are frequent causes of back pain. Injuries such as sprains and fractures, mechanical problems including muscle spasms and imbalance and herniated discs, various acquired conditions of the spine including osteoporosis and rarely, infections and tumours may all give rise to back pain.

Stress may contribute to backache by inducing muscle spasm. Pregnant women commonly report low back pain.

Main Symptoms of Back Pain

Any part of the back may be affected upper, middle or lower. Pain may be described as acute or chronic depending on its duration. Acute back pain usually lasts less than three months, whereas chronic pain persists beyond this period and is frequently progressive in nature.

Symptoms may be as varied as a constant muscle ache or an acute piercing or stabbing pain. Back pain may restrict your mobility and alter your posture. When back pain is caused due to irritation of nerve roots, it often radiates into the thigh, and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as weakness, tingling and numbness. More on the symptoms of back pain.

Back Pain Diagnosis and Treatment

If you need to see a doctor for your back pain, you will be asked to provide a detailed medical history since many different conditions may give rise to back pain. You will be thoroughly examined and may need laboratory tests and imaging studies like x-rays or a CT/MRI scan.

Treatment strategies aim to provide pain relief and restore flexibility and mobility. If back pain is caused by strain or minor injury, you will be advised to take adequate rest. Application of an ice pack in the acute stage may prove beneficial. Drugs like aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help contain pain and inflammation. Hot packs may provide relief once the acute phase has subsided. As prolonged bed rest is no longer advisable in most sufferers, you should begin gentle activity like walking within 24-72 hours.

Physical therapy and muscle strengthening exercises will further help strengthen your back. You may be prescribed stronger painkillers or muscle relaxants if pain hinders your day-to-day activities. Physiotherapy also plays a role in the management of long-standing back pain. Alternative therapies like acupuncture, chiropractic and osteopathy may provide relief in some people. Although rare, extreme cases may require surgey.

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