Back pain can affect every part of your life. Pain or backache can occur anywhere, from your neck and upper back, down to your lower back and legs. Lower back pain is the most common back pain – about eight in 10 people will experience an episode in their lifetime.
The pain usually gets better by itself within a few weeks. However, once you’ve had a back problem, you’re more likely to have it again at some point. It’s best to stay active and use over-the-counter painkillers if you need to. If your pain is chronic (long-term) or severe, then you may need treatment.
In most cases, there’s no obvious reason for back pain (non-specific back pain) and it's very rarely anything serious.
It’s often due to a sprain or strain to a muscle, tendon or ligament, which can be caused by:
Other causes of back pain include the following medical conditions:
These medical conditions often cause other symptoms in addition to back pain, such as numbness, a tingling sensation and/or weakness. They are also treated differently to non-specific back pain.
Some people are at greater risk of back pain
You can develop back pain at any age; even children and teenagers can have back pain. However, the following factors put you at greater risk of back pain:
Depression and anxiety also increase your risk of back pain.
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Other less common conditions that can cause back pain include:
If you’re worried that your symptoms aren’t improving, or they’re affecting your everyday life, you should see your GP.
In most cases, you won’t need any tests. Your doctor can diagnose the most common type of back pain — non-specific back pain — from your description and a brief examination. However, if your doctor thinks there could be a serious reason or underlying condition for your pain, they may refer you to a consultant or arrange for you to have further tests, such as an X-ray, MRI scan or blood tests.
How do I know if my back pain is serious?
You should see your GP about your back pain if:
You should also see your GP if you are worried about your back pain or are finding it difficult to cope.
They will ask you about your symptoms, perform a physical examination of your back and discuss possible treatments.
Contact your GP immediately if you have back pain and any of the following symptoms:
You should also urgently contact your GP if your back pain:
These symptoms could be a sign of a more serious problem that needs treatment.
What can I do to relieve my back pain?
You can often do things at home to help relieve your back pain and speed up your recovery, such as:
Try to stay positive and remember that your back pain will most likely improve — this mental attitude is shown to speed up recovery.
How to prevent back pain
It is difficult to prevent back pain but there are some things you can do to reduce your risk, including:
It is also important to be aware of your posture. It is easy to have bad posture especially when lifting objects, sitting, using digital devices or watching television. Make sure you:
Specialist back pain treatments
If your back pain doesn’t improve, your doctor may suggest you see a specialist, such as a physiotherapist, chiropractor or osteopath, who may carry out manual therapy. Manual therapy should only be used alongside other treatments such as exercise.
They may also suggest attending group exercise classes led by a qualified instructor to reduce your back pain. There is some evidence that the Alexander technique — a technique that focuses on being more aware of your posture and movements — may help. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) doesn't currently recommend this technique.
Psychological therapies eg cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help you cope better with your back pain by changing the way you think about it. Having a more positive attitude can improve your back pain.
If your back pain is caused by a specific medical condition, your GP may refer you to an orthopaedic consultant or neurosurgeon for further advice and possible treatment, including:
Other treatments used to treat non-specific back pain are not recommended by NICE as there is not enough evidence to show they work. These treatments include:
Painkilling spinal injections have also been used to treat non-specific back pain but there is insufficient evidence to prove this is effective. However, it is known to work for sciatica.
What are some symptoms of back pain?
Back pain can vary from mild to severe and can come on gradually or suddenly. The pain can feel like a burning, shooting or stabbing sensation or a dull ache. It can also radiate down your legs and even past your knees into your feet.
When should I be worried about lower back pain?
You should see your GP if your lower back pain is radiating down into one or both legs, especially if it spreads past your knees, and/or it is accompanied by numbness, tingling or weakness in one or both legs. You should also see your GP if your back pain doesn't improve after a few weeks or is getting worse, or is severe enough to prevent you from carrying out your everyday activities.