manage lower back pain

Ways to Manage Lower Back Pain in Australia

Back pain is considered chronic if it lasts three months or longer. It can come and go, often bringing temporary relief, followed by frustration.

by Emma Hall

If you are suffering from lower back pain, there are treatment and management options available. Most back pain is temporary. Understanding the way that your back works and some of the common causes of back pain may assist to avoid painful episodes. Anyone can experience lower back pain, but it does increase in likelihood and severity as you age. Find out how to treat back pain and when you should talk to your doctor. 

How Does My Back Work?

back pain

Your back consists of bones and muscles that work together to allow you to move and bend. There are twenty-four bones, called the vertebrae, in your spine. The spine is divided into three curves that give your back its natural movement: the cervical curve in your shoulders and neck, the thoracic curve in your upper back, and the lumber curve in your lower back. 

Each vertebra is separated by discs that cushion the bone and absorb shocks from movement. The discs allow your spine to bend and move.

The muscles in your back are strong and help to maintain the alignment of your spine. They support your upper body, helped by other strong core muscles in your stomach, thighs and buttocks. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Back Pain?

Back pain can range from a dull and persistent ache, to shooting and stabbing pain. Sometimes it is highly localised to one area of the spine, and other times it affects your entire back. The pain can also spread to other parts of your body, like down your legs or through your torso.

Pain can be experienced anywhere in your back. When you are suffering from back pain, you will feel stiff and restricted. You may feel tender in some parts of your back or along your spine. 

It may be difficult or uncomfortable to lift things or bend down. Even simple daily movements such as walking or sitting down could be painful. However, it’s also possible that standing or walking may be the only comfortable thing to do. 

Back pain is very common, but it is also highly debilitating. Because your back is a central part of your body and intrinsic to most of your movement, it can be very frustrating when you are unable to move comfortably due to back pain. Living with persistent back pain can lead to anxiety and depression, and it can severely impact your quality of life if you avoid movement and activity due to concerns about your pain.

What Causes Back Pain?

Most people will experience back pain in their lifetime. It is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and one of the most common reasons why people need to take time off work. Back pain can be caused by an obvious incident or injury, but sometimes it seems to come out of the blue. This can be very frustrating for sufferers. 

Although it may feel like your spine is sore when you are experiencing back pain, normally it is not the vertebrae that is affected. The muscles, ligaments and joints are more likely to be the cause of your back pain. These can be strained through activities like heavy lifting or repetitive movements, or sudden and awkward movements. Poor posture, or slumping, can also lead to back pain, which is why it is often suffered by people who spend long days sitting at a computer or in an office. Stress can contribute to back pain, because stress can cause the muscles through your neck and back to tense up involuntarily. Prolonged muscle tension often leads to persistent pain.

Other risk factors for suffering from back pain include a sedentary lifestyle or being overweight. If your body is carrying too much weight, this can put a strain on all your muscles, and especially the large ones in your back that are responsible for maintaining your spine alignment. 

Although the vertebrae in your back are often not the cause of back pain, the discs that separate the bone can be prone to injury. A ‘slipped disc’ referred to when the outside of the spinal disc tears or herniates. This can happen when the cartilage surrounding the disc pushes against the spinal cord or nerve roots, and the cushion that sits between the spinal vertebrae extends outside its normal position. Disc injuries can be very painful and will normally last a few days.

Who Gets Lower Back Pain?

Anyone can suffer from back pain, and it occurs in everyone from teenagers to older people. Lifestyle factors, such as sitting down for extended periods and lifting heavy objects can increase your chances of experiencing back pain or exacerbate existing conditions. 

Some people are also genetically predisposed to suffering from back pain. Scoliosis, kyphosis, and lordosis are all congenital conditions that cause curvature of the spine, placing additional pressure on the muscles and tendons. 

Older people are more likely to suffer from back pain. This is because the fluid content between the vertebrae, which keeps your back moving and bending easily, decreases with age. This causes increased irritation of the discs in your spine. 

Additionally, some common health conditions experienced by seniors are linked to back pain, including osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, sciatica, spinal stenosis, and osteoporosis. The treatment and management of these underlying conditions can help to address the back pain.  

Acute vs Chronic Back Pain

Although most people will experience back pain at some point in their lives, there is a difference between acute and chronic back pain. 

Acute back pain develops suddenly and is normally the direct result of an injury. Often, people with acute back pain can trace it to an injury or sharp movement. Acute back pain is caused by strains and sprains in the muscles of your back. Although these can be very painful at the time, they usually heal within a few days and don’t require any medical intervention.

Chronic back pain is more difficult to trace to an injury. It may not be as sharp a pain, but it will be persistent over time and will not improve. Often, chronic back pain worsens with time, so it’s a good idea to seek medical assistance. Chronic pain can be caused by underlying conditions such as a herniated disc, osteoarthritis, or a degenerative disc disease.

How Is Back Pain Diagnosed?

If you have severe or persistent back pain, you should always go to see your doctor.  A full physical examination to determine where you are experiencing pain will be conducted. Additionally, they will ask a series of questions to understand your medical history and what may be contributing to the pain. They may conduct some tests to see how the pain is affecting your movement, and they will ask about how your back pain is impacting your life and your mood.

If you are experiencing certain symptoms, your doctor will conduct additional tests or refer you to a specialist. Some of these symptoms include loss of bowel control, fever, unplanned weight loss and muscle weakness. These suggest a more serious medical condition. You may need to have some medical imaging done, such as X-rays, CT scans ultrasounds and MRIs. These allow specialists to screen for problems with your bones, discs and ligaments. 

How Is Back Pain Treated?

The medical treatment used to address back pain will depend on the type of pain you are experiencing and whether it is acute or chronic. In many cases, back pain goes away on its own. If you are suffering from back pain and it has only been a couple of days, and especially if you think you can trace the cause back to a specific movement or incident, then you shouldn’t worry—your back pain will most likely disappear soon. However, in cases when back pain is persistent, your doctor may prescribe certain treatments.

Medications can assist with managing and treating back pain. Depending on your type of back pain, your doctor may recommend anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, pain relief, steroids to reduce inflammation, or corticosteroid injections. Some of these, like anti-inflammatories, will be designed to assist the sore muscles in your back to recover and improve. Others, like pain relief, are intended to help you manage the back pain while your body heals on its own.

Often, medication is best when combined with some physical therapy. Seeing a physiotherapist is a good idea, so that they can give you a program of exercises designed to stretch and strengthen your back muscles. They can also give you deep tissue massage and spinal manipulation to treat your pain.

In severe cases, you may require surgery for your back pain. This is usually a last resort for when other treatment and management options don’t work. 

Self-Management of Back Pain

Many people will live with recurrent back pain, and it is possible to effectively manage it on your own. Some of the key things you can do are learning about your own back pain and working out which treatments are the most successful. Always keep a positive mindset and remember that most back pain is temporary. 

If you are suffering from back pain, it can be tempting to stay in bed and avoid movement. However, gentle exercise and activity is a good idea to stretch out your back muscles and keep the blood flowing to the area. You may want to ask a doctor or physio for some advice on safe exercises to do.

If you have identified that your back pain may be linked to stress, meditation can be a good option. Learning how to relax and loosening the tension in your back muscles may prevent your back pain. 

As back pain is often temporary, some simple pain relief techniques are often the best way to get through an episode. Heat and cold packs on the affected area can help. Gentle movement is recommended rather than staying still, and try to avoid things that may exacerbate the problem, like sitting at a desk for long periods, doing repetitive movements, or lifting heavy items. Over-the-counter pain medication can also assist you to get through painful days. 

How to Prevent Back Pain

If you suffer from recurring back pain, there are some things you can do to avoid having an episode of pain. Even for chronic sufferers, some simple lifestyle changes can dramatically improve your likelihood of living pain free.

Firstly, understanding your back and its limitations will avoid you putting unnecessary strain on your spine and muscles. When picking up heavy objects, always use your legs and keep your back straight. If you can’t manage a load, ask someone for help. 

Sometimes a poor mattress can impact your back. Your mattress should be firm and supportive so that your spine can remain straight through the night, without any sagging under your hips and buttocks. Avoid sleeping on your stomach if you experience back pain.

Smoking can increase your chance of developing back pain, so quitting may stop your instances of pain. Managing your weight is another change you can make to put less pressure on your back muscles. 

Many people suffer from poor posture, so try to be aware of the way you are sitting and standing and correct your posture as needed. When you get into the habit of keeping your spine straighter, it becomes easier to maintain. 

Finally, research has shown that people with depression have higher instances of back pain. If you are experiencing depression or anxiety, it’s a good idea to seek help for these issues. 

Where to Get Help

If you have tried preventative and self-treatment options and you are still experiencing back pain, you may need to seek out medical assistance. Your first point of contact should be your GP—they are best placed to gain an overall understanding of your health and medical history, and help you make a plan for dealing with your back pain. 

Often you will also need the services of a specialist. For physical and musculoskeletal problems, you may want to work with a physiotherapist, exercise physiologist, or occupational therapist. For help with depression, you should speak to a psychologist or a mental health support service. 

Lower back pain is very uncomfortable and debilitating, but it doesn’t need to stop you living life. Learning how best to manage your back pain is the first step to dealing with it and finding ways to work around it. Remember that back pain is often temporary and can be avoided with some planning and small lifestyle changes.

References
  1. Back pain. (2021). Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/back-pain
  2. Back pain – Symptoms and causes. (2020, August 21). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20369906
  3. How Your Back Works. (2020). Fairview. https://www.fairview.org/patient-education/82320
  4. Lower Back Pain. (2021). Pain Specialists Australia. https://painspecialistsaustralia.com.au/lower-back-pain
  5. Martel, J. (2019, August 1). What You Should Know About Low Back Pain. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/low-back-pain-acute#treatment
  6. Yezak, M. (2021, June 14). What Are the Differences Between Acute and Chronic Back Pain? Houston Spine & Rehab. https://www.spineandrehab.com/blog/what-are-the-differences-between-acute-and-chronic-back-pain/
About the Writer
Emma Hall
Emma Hall is a professional writer with experience in healthcare and wellness. She loves to write clear and helpful articles about health, fitness and more. Emma lives in Melbourne and loves coffee, running, and her pet dog Bernie.
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