Back Pain

Causes and symptoms

Back pain may be acute or a chronic, dull ache and may radiate, for example, down the legs. It may be worsened by certain movements or inactivity.

Most people develop back pain after straining the muscles and ligaments that support the spine and the facet joints that connect the vertebrae (back bones). This is usually due to overexertion and lifting. However, bad posture, inactivity, muscle tension, poor muscle tone and being overweight can also contribute.

Other causes include a slipped disc (when the disc between the vertebrae bulges out from between the vertebrae and pushes on the nerves in the spinal cord), inflammation (as in arthritis) or internal disease such as tumours or kidney infection.
Orthodox treatments

Anti-inflammatory drugs or painkillers may be prescribed, along with physiotherapy and sometimes traction. In severe cases, doctors may recommend surgery. Patients may have to wear corsets or back supports.
Complementary approaches

* Osteopathy and chiropractic – can be used to treat all types of back problems and injury. Practitioners can also advise on exercises to strengthen the back.

* Massage – relieves tension and improves circulation. Various approaches including shiatsu, tui na, Swedish massage and aromatherapy massage are helpful.

* Hydrotherapy – hot and cold compresses, or alternating hot and cold water, improve local circulation and can help mild backache.

* Nutritional therapy – glucosamine sulphate, chondroitin, magnesium and essential fatty acids are sometimes useful. Bromelian can reduce inflammation.

* Herbal medicine – anti-inflammatory herbs, such as devil’s claw, may ease pain.

* Acupuncture and acupressure – both are said to be effective for relieving back pain; acupressure to local areas may ease pain and inflammation.

* Homeopathy – arnica, taken every 30 minutes for up to six doses and then every four hours, is said to ease swelling and pain.

* Magnetic therapy – devices giving pulsed magnetic frequencies may offer some relief by improving local circulation and tissue healing.

* Exercise therapies – can be used to treat some types of back pain and are effective as a preventative measure. Yoga, Pilates and the Alexander technique may help.


Self-help tips

* Regular back stretches will improve muscle tone and prevent injury. Yoga and Pilates are ideal. Alexander technique also improves posture.
* Before getting out of bed, bring both knees to the chest one by one and then together, while lying on your back. Then roll both knees from side to side. This stretches and warms up the muscles.
* Eat your breakfast standing up. This lessens the pressure on the spine.
* Lengthen the spine when sitting and standing. If using computers, ensure that the centre of the screen is straight in front and level with your eyes to prevent stooping.
* Regular swimming and walking keep the spine flexible and the muscles toned.
* Avoid standing or sitting for long periods.
* Have neck and shoulder or back massages to ease stiffness and improve circulation.
* Applying a packet of frozen peas wrapped in a towel to the affected area for several minutes and repeating every half hour will reduce swelling.
* Quarterly back maintenance treatments with an osteopath or chiropractor can prevent injury and keep the spine balanced and flexible.
* Acupressure techniques are easy to learn and can ease stiffness and pain.
* Sleep on a good mattress and use small pillows under your knees or in the small of your back for extra support.
* Reduce muscular tension at the end of the day with gentle stretches, relaxation and deep-breathing exercises.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.
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