I’ve done the rounds on back pain. Over the past 10 years I have seen numerous doctors, physiotherapists and even specialists/surgeons for back pain related issues. I’ve been massaged to the point of torture, stuck with enough needles to make a porcupine jealous, ‘electrocuted’ with special physio-pads, injected multiple times, and scanned repeatedly.
I’m not trying to boast, but rather explaining why back pain is close to my heart. (Pun only partially intended.) Thankfully, my back issues in their numerous forms have never evolved into anything serious. My experiences have however ingrained a deep respect for maintaining healthy living habits to reduce the amount of pain I feel in my back in the future. It’s understandable therefore why putting together this comprehensive guide to back pain was a real pleasure for me. And yes, in case you’re wondering, I did make sure to take regular breaks from my desk while writing this article so I don’t start getting aches across my back.
In this article we’re going to delve into the ins and outs of back pain, including topics like the structure and make-up of the back, types of back pain, what causes it, treatments, symptoms, some helpful advice and interesting frequently asked questions. If you’d like to skip ahead to any specific part, feel free to make use of our quicklinks in the table of contents below.
12 Facts and Statistics About Back Pain You Need To Know
- You CAN experience back pain without being injured. Your lifestyle, genetics, health, weight or disease can all cause it. In fact, as research on the topic develops genetics is becoming a more commonly associated factor in determining who experiences back pain. (WebMD, Accessed 2020)
- Exercise is GOOD for your back even when you’re in pain. Often people who have back pain refrain from their normal activities and/or exercise. I know this because I was one of them for many years. The back is designed to bend, move and lift. Exercising is good for your sore back providing you’re training in the right way. (Pain-Ed, 2017)
- More than 1 in 3 adults say that back pain impacts their day-to-day living. (ACA, Accessed 2020)
- 50% of pregnant women suffer from back pain. Women in general are more likely to experience back pain than men (see our FAQs for more on this). (WebMD, Accessed 2020)
- 90% of patients never find out what caused their back pain. (ACA, Accessed 2020)
- 90% of people experiencing lower back pain have their issues resolved within 6 weeks. Only 7% develop chronic back pain. (Pain Doctor, Accessed 2020)
- 54% of Americans who suffer from back pain work the majority of their day sitting at a desk. While 29% of Americans believe their back pain is caused by stress. (Statista, 2017)
- Staying still for long periods of time can strain your back and make your pain worse. Whether you’re sitting up straight, lying down or standing up for a long time, it can all aggravate back pain. For the same reason, while rest can be helpful, spending days in bed can do more harm than good. (Pain-Ed, 2017)
- 1 in 6 Australians, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, suffer from back problems. (AIHW, Accessed 2020)
- Based on statistics gathered by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2018, it is estimated that up to 90% of people will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. (ABS, Accessed 2020)
- The majority of back pain is caused by non-serious conditions. Only a minority of pain is caused by cancer, fractures, arthritis or infection. (WebMD, Accessed 2020)
- Back pain is one of the leading reasons for why people call in sick for work and is the second most common reason for visiting the doctor’s office. (ACA, Accessed 2020)
Understanding Your Back and Neck
The back–for those of you who like specifics–refers to the area of the human body from the top of the buttocks right up to the bottom of the back of the neck.
If you want some information that’s more than just skin deep… The back centres around the vertebral column which houses the spinal cord. This column is what gives your back its curvature, or shape. It’s divided into four different sections, as you can see from the image below: cervical; thoracic; lumbar; and pelvic. Lower back pain, a common form of back pain in general, refers to the Lumbar part of the spine.
Each section of the spine contains vertebrae (with there being 33 in total), which are interlocking bones. In between each vertebrae is an intervertebral disc. These ‘rubbery’ discs absorb shocks when you move to provide cushioning and protection to your bones. The image below shows a bird’s-eye view of a single vertebrae. Of course, your back also contains muscles, tissue (tendons and ligaments), and nerves. In short, there’s a lot going on with your back.
What is back pain?
Back pain can include any discomfort in any area of your back; lower, middle or top. Some pain is mild and simply inconvenient, while other pain is intense and can be disabling. Sufferers of back pain can experience sharp or stabbing pain in a very specific part of the body, burning sensation over an entire section, or a dull aching.
We’ll elaborate on what can cause back pain in the next section of this guide, but suffice here to say that some back pain is caused by damage, some is the result of disease, and others can be caused by genetic or lifestyle factors.
The type of back pain and its cause will determine the right treatment and method of pain alleviation. That’s why we’ll repeatedly recommend that if you’re suffering from pain in your back that you see a trained health professional.
What Causes Back Pain?
Back pain can be caused by a whole variety of factors. We’ve broken them down by general category.
- Muscle Strain
Muscle strain is caused by the overstretching (or in more serious cases tearing) of a tissue that connects the bone to the muscle. This can happen due to strenuous exercise, working out incorrectly or lifting too heavy a weight. What some people don’t realise is that this can even be caused by sleeping in a bad position or prolonged sitting/lying.
- Disease, Injury and Infection
There are a number of potential diseases that cause back pain, but it’s important to bear in mind that these are a minority of cases. Spinal disc disease, degenerative disease, bacterial infections, cancer, arthritis and autoimmune disease are all examples. Injuries can be caused by something as serious as a car crash or by a seeming innocuous fall. If you’d like to know more about any of these causes or think you’ve suffered an injury, we recommend speaking directly with your doctor.
- Lifestyle Factors
Lots of people don’t realise how much lifestyle factors can affect their back. Lack of exercise, bad nutrition, being overweight and smoking can all cause back pain. On the other end of the spectrum, high impact sports, intensive physical activity, or even prolonged sitting–like at a desk–can also contribute to the pain. Mental and emotional wellbeing can both be a cause of some back pain but can also be linked to other causes such as interrupted sleep or prolonged inactivity.
Images sourced from AIHW
- Additional Factors
Some people might be genetically predisposed to suffer from back pain or suffer from bad posture. Women are more likely in general to suffer from lower back pain and about half of pregnant women also suffer due to the additional weight and stress on the back as well as hormonal changes. Lastly, there are non-spine related sources of back pain like kidney stones or tumours.
The following back pain chart breaks down the different sections of the back and common causes to that area.
Image sourced from The Whoot
What are the symptoms of back pain and what should you do?
I’ve suffered from a number of different types of back pain and have found sitting, lying and standing all painful at different times. I’ve struggled to go for a run, pick up small and light objects or even turn my neck. From personal experience and extensive research I’d recommend you see a doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Intense or constant pain anywhere in your back
- Pain, weakness, tingling or numbing down either or both of your legs
- Swelling or redness
- Inability to go about your daily activities, including sleeping.
What Are The Treatments Used For Back Pain?
In case you’ve skipped down to this part of the article immediately: we’ll recap everything we’ve covered so far here: There are LOTS of potential causes of back pain and a wide variety of symptoms and experiences. Not all of the treatments outlined below will be effective for everyone. It is dependent on your specific situation. We always recommend receiving medical advice and consultation first.
Often back pain is treated with medication to either reduce inflammation or just relieve the pain. Some medicine even acts as muscle relaxants to temporarily help tight muscles to relax. Back medication is applied in a number of ways including orally and via injections.
Heat packs and ice packs are often used to reduce inflammation, relieve pain temporarily and help back pain sufferers to become more mobile.
In a similar way to the first two methods, there are a variety of creams and gels used to relieve pain, ease tight muscles and apply warmth or cold to painful areas.
- Exercises/Rehabilitation Therapy
Specific exercises, including stretching and activities, can often be prescribed by a health professional. The simple act of stretching offers a number of benefits: it decreases stress, reduces muscle tension, strengthens your body and back, and increases your range of motion. Back stretches in particular work to improve your spinal curvature and reduce compression on the spinal column by strengthening your muscles, reducing pain and the risk of injury during strenuous physical activity. For a complete guide to stretching, check out our article here. Doctors, specialists, physiotherapists, and chiropractors can all help with back pain. Moderate or serious rehabilitation may include a repetition of therapy sessions over a period of time.
This is a very rare and not recommended option unless advised by surgical and back specialists. In extreme cases, chronic and serious cases of back pain surgery can be the last resort in treatment. ALWAYS make sure to consult the professionals and experts if you’re considering or concerned about surgical treatments.
- Acupuncture/Electrical Nerve Stimulation
I’ve personally been treated with both of these methods and can attest to their effectiveness. Acupuncture is the application of inserting thin needles into specific parts of the body and stimulating them in a variety of ways. This stimulation is designed to encourage natural chemicals to be released by the body to reduce pain. Electrical stimulation works in the same way but uses electrical impulses rather than needles.
How Can You Reduce The Risk of Back Pain?
You know the cliche: prevention is better than cure. You probably know it because it’s true!
So, how do you reduce the risk of suffering from back pain? Here are a some tips to help you keep healthy, mobile and pain-free:
- Maintain a nutritional, balanced diet and vitamin intake.
- Exercise regularly. Moderate, daily exercise instead of intense, sporadic exercise is key.
- Avoid staying still for long periods of time. (Get up from your desk regularly!)
- Ensure your work desk is ergonomically set up.
- Maintain correct posture.
- Warm up and stretch before exercising or participating in physical activities.
- Invest in a high quality mattress that fits your body and sleep patterns.
- Avoid – or quit – smoking.
- Use back supports when lifting very heavy objects.
- Take care of your mental health.
- See a healthcare professional if you’re experiencing any symptoms.
Frequently Asked Questions
Well, that’s a wrap on back pain.
For one more time, we always recommend consulting a healthcare professional if you’re experiencing unusual, sustained or intense back pain because of the complexities involved in diagnosing the cause and treatment. In the meantime, make sure to stay active, fit and healthy, and take care of yourself and those around you.