Next month is Back Care Awareness Week (3rd – 7th of October)if back pain is a problem for you, you’ll know how important that subject is. But it isn’t all gloom and doom and the following 10 facts may help you to shed some light on what you can do to take care of your back and enjoy less pain.
1 Back Pain is common and normal
Unfortunately, most of us will experience back pain at some point but most issues will repair and recover after a short period of time. Simple steps like the use of heat and cold, painkillers and, most importantly, keeping mobile will help speed this process up. In most cases there is no need to visit a professional like an osteopath or GP although if you’re not sure then make contact if only for peace of mind and advice.
What’s becoming more common however, is long term back pain which starts to affect your quality of life. An inability to sit comfortably at work, tiredness and irritability, having to give up previously-loved exercise, trepidation when picking up little ones….the list goes on. If this sounds like you then, please, make contact. We can assess and diagnose the underlying issues that are preventing your back from repairing and help you to start feeling like you again.
2 Scans are rarely needed
It isn’t funding issues that prevent your GP from recommending an X-ray or MRI for your back pain. They are of often of little clinical value. If you have a long history of back pain they often show very little which can leave you feeling frustrated and confused. And conversely, extensive issues can show up in scans where you have no symptoms at all causing you unnecessary worry.
All scans will show an element of wear and tear. The risk with that is that such damage can be wrongly attributed as the cause of the symptoms. In the worst case scenario that could set your recovery back. In other cases, a scan will just confirm the existing diagnosis and won’t change the management plan.
More important than securing a scan is having a thorough assessment to establish the root cause of the problem. If scans are necessary then any professional will refer you but the key issue instead should be to find out why are you experiencing symptoms.
3 Bed rest is not helpful
In the first few days after the initial injury, avoiding aggravating activities may help to relieve pain. However, there is very strong evidence that keeping active and returning to all usual activities gradually, including work and hobbies, is important in aiding recovery.
In contrast, prolonged bed rest is unhelpful, and is associated with higher levels of pain, greater disability, poorer recovery and longer absence from work. In fact, it appears that the longer you stay in bed because of back pain, the worse the pain becomes.
In clinic we advise you to listen to your intuition: keep mobile and active but listen to your body – if something feels like a bad idea, then it probably is!
4 More back pain does not mean more back damage
This may seem strange, but we now know that more pain doesn’t always mean more damage. Ultimately, two individuals with the same injury can feel different amounts of pain. The degree of pain felt can vary according to a number of factors, including the situation in which the pain occurs, previous pain experiences, your mood, fears, fitness, stress levels and coping style. For example, an athlete or soldier may not experience much pain after injury until later when they are in a less intense environment.
What’s more, your nervous system has the ability to regulate how much pain you feel at any given time. And if you do have pain it might be that your nervous system has become hypersensitive and is causing you to experience pain, even though the initial strain or sprain has healed. You may even feel more pain when you move, even though you’re not doing any harm.
Learning how to distinguish the ‘hurt’ you are feeling from any concerns about ‘harm’ being done to your back, makes it easier to help with your treatment.
5 The perfect sitting posture may not exist
In my many years in clinic, I have yet to hear anyone say that they have ‘great posture’. Pretty much everyone will say that their posture is terrible and yet when I look, it’s usually not that bad.
Sure, we could all probably sit a little less and move a little more. Ok, a lot more. But there is no ideal posture. Our spines are all different – some are very curvy, others are ramrod straight. Clearly no one posture will suit all spines. And often trying to sit upright is just another demand on your body as your muscles aren’t strong enough to sustain it.
Instead you should think about posture and ‘function’. How well can your back move? How strong is your body? Often ‘I’ve got a terrible posture’ is shorthand for ‘I sit in an office all day and don’t have time in my life for exercising’. Treatment to reduce stiffness with advice on ways to stretch and strengthen can help here. Our bodies are very forgiving of the demands we place on them as long as we do something to counter those demands.
6 Lifting and bending are safe
Are you worried that lifting, bending and twisting are dangerous and should be avoided? If so you’re not alone but contrary to common belief, research to date has not supported a consistent association between any of these factors and back pain.
Of course, you can strain your back if you lift something awkwardly or something that is heavier than you would usually lift. Similarly, if you already have back pain, these activities might result in you feeling more sore than usual. But this does not mean that the activity is dangerous or should be avoided.
While a lifting or bending incident might cause back pain, bending and lifting is normal and should be practiced to help strengthen the back, similar to returning to running and sport after spraining an ankle.
7 Avoiding activities and moving carefully does not help in the long-term
It is common, especially during the first few days of back pain, that your movement can be significantly altered. This is similar to limping after spraining your ankle, and generally resolves as the pain settles. While initially hard, getting back to doing valued activities which are painful, or feared, is important. After an episode of back pain, it can be tempting to begin to move differently due to a fear of pain or a belief that the activity is dangerous. Such altered movement can be unhealthy in the long term and can actually increase the strain on your back.
8 Stress, low mood and poor sleep influence back pain
There is some evidence that poor sleep patterns can cause or contribute to back pain. What we look for in clinic is the cycle or routine which leads to back pain and or a poor night’s sleep. A poor night’s sleep after all won’t help if you have back pain. When a patient reports that they are now able to sleep better we know that they’re on the home straight. So if you’re in pain, take a look at your sleep routine and see if there’s anything you can do to improve things.
Over the past few years more and more is being discovered about how stress, mood, anxiety and even the way we think about pain can influence the amount of pain we feel. Similarly, back pain can often be triggered following changes in life stress, mood or anxiety levels.
This is why learning about pain and lifestyle is an important part of ‘treatment’. Getting rid of the fears about movement or helping with relaxation techniques all form a part of what we can offer.
9 Exercise is good and safe
Many people with pain are afraid of exercise and avoid it as they think it may cause them more problems. This isn’t the case. Ok, if you’ve got a big issue with a disc in the low back then you might step down the weights you were lifting in the gym but you won’t need to stop.
Exercise is important when you’ve had an episode of back pain. Aside from maximising the ability of your body to repair and recover, it’ll send important messages to your brain that all is ok really.
Everyone wants the magic exercise that’ll fix things and we can certainly give you exercises and stretches but, in truth, whole body exercises are the way to go be it walking, swimming, yoga or anything that moves all of you.
10 Persistent back pain CAN get better
Since back pain is associated with many factors that vary between individuals, treatments that address the relevant factors for each individual can be effective. Where many treatments fail is in not looking at all the factors that might be contributing. A long standing back problem is unlikely to just be a problem with muscles or with a specific area of the back. Just as the whole of the body should be looked at, so should factors outside of the treatment room such as sleep, exercise, diet, stress etc.
By identifying the different contributing factors and trying to address them, pain can be significantly reduced and you can live a happier and healthier life.
If you have back pain, or are not sure if treatment is suitable for you, why not book a free 15 minute consultation to discuss your pain, what may be causing your symptoms and what you can do to help ease the pain and allow your back to repair.
You’ve really got nothing to lose but the pain.