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.
Back pain can be caused by a range of factors, including:
Also called nerve root pain, sciatica causes around one in 20 cases of lower back pain. It happens when there’s irritation to the nerve that passes from your spinal cord down to your leg (the sciatic nerve). It’s sometimes known as a trapped nerve. Symptoms of sciatica include lower back pain and leg pain, and sometimes also tingling and numbness from your lower back and buttocks down your leg to your feet.
Cauda equina syndrome
A rare but serious condition caused by pressure on the nerves at the very base of your spinal cord. It causes pain and also bowel and bladder problems. Symptoms usually start and progress quickly, and it needs urgent treatment to avoid permanent damage.
Discs are fluid-filled cushions that sit between each vertebra in your spine and act as a shock absorber. If it’s damaged, it can leak out and put pressure on the spinal cord and surrounding nerves. A slipped (also called herniate or prolapsed) disc can cause sudden and severe lower back pain. It can be triggered by various things, such as awkward bending, heavy lifting or vibration (from driving or some hand-held power tools).
Spinal stenosis is where your spinal canal becomes narrowed, causing the nerve tissue nearby to become compressed and inflamed. It can cause pain, numbness and weakness in your back and legs. Weakness while walking that’s relieved when you sit down is a common symptom.
Other less common conditions related to 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 will be able to 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.
You can often do things at home to help relieve back pain:
However, if your pain doesn’t improve, your doctor may suggest you see a specialist, such as a physiotherapist, chiropractor or osteopath.
If your 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: