Back pain - symptoms, causes and treatments
Updated: Feb 18
Would it surprise you to know that back pain is a common problem experienced by Australians? The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reports that in 2014-2015, one in six Australians reported experiencing some form of back pain – that’s 16% of the Australian population.
Back pain can last anything from a few hours to days, months or longer. For a small proportion of these cases, back pain can be debilitating and may get in the way of everyday life causing distress. However, you would be pleased to know that there are things you can do to help improve and manage the pain.
To discuss your back pain and get an accurate diagnosis, why not book an appointment with one of our specialist physiotherapists? We’re here to help you diagnose, treat and recover from your lower, upper back or neck pain.
What is back or spinal pain?
Back pain covers a range of conditions affecting the neck (cervical spine), upper back (thoracic spine), lower back (lumbar spine), the sacrum and lastly, the tailbone (coccyx) and can relate to the bones, nerves, muscles, joints and connective tissue in the back.
There are two types of back pain i.e. specific and non-specific back pain. Specific back pain can be linked to a very specific back problem, which is rare. In fact, only one to five per cent of back pain can be related back to a specific cause. In 90-95% of the cases, back pain is non-specific i.e. there is no one single medical cause that can be defined.
What causes back pain?
Back pain can have many causes. Bad posture, injuries, diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis, disc disease, degeneration and even some genetic conditions can cause back pain. In most cases, the back pain comes from the muscles, ligaments and joints and not from any significant spinal damage.
Some of the common causes of a sore back are:
Stress – stress often leads to increased muscle tension resulting in stiffness, pain, and back fatigue.
Muscle and ligament strains – excessive force, repetitive use, and having pre-existing conditions can lead to soft tissue damage, in other words, muscle, tendon and ligament strains and tears.
Sciatica – This is when a bulging intervertebral disc or other structures adjacent to the sciatic nerve squeeze the nerve that runs from the lower back to the leg, causing pain.
Structural problems – the lifelong habit of bad posture, curvature of the spine (e.g. kyphosis or hunchback, and scoliosis), osteoporosis and some genetic conditions can put added pressure on the spinal column contributing to back pain.
Arthritis – some forms of arthritis can cause back pain such as osteoarthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.
Symptoms of back problems and back pain
Some of the symptoms of back problems people experience can be:
back pain caused by an injury or condition
tingling, numbness and weakness in the arms or legs
pain and stiffness from spine degeneration caused by the wear and tear on the joints
pain caused by pressure on specific parts of the spinal nerves
loss of bowel or bladder control
difficulty with sitting, standing or walking.
What are the lifestyle factors that impact back pain?
Lifestyle factors can exacerbate or increase the risk of getting back pain. These include:
being overweight or obese
sitting for long periods
the type of work you do.
How is back pain diagnosed?
Back pain is diagnosed through questioning and examining you. A physiotherapist can help you diagnose your back pain and rule out other conditions that may require additional testing and treatment. They do this by asking detailed questions about your back pain, such as potential triggers of pain and your medical history. By using biomechanical diagnosis techniques, your physiotherapist can identify any areas of the spine that have dysfunctional movement, contributing to your symptoms.
How is back pain treated?
Once you have a diagnosis, your physiotherapist can give you advice about your recovery time, how they can help you with your recovery and what you can do to speed up your recovery. Treatment will usually include a combination of physiotherapy treatment such as mobilisation, manipulation, soft tissue treatment, and exercises as well as things you can do at home such as how to manage pain and exercises you can do to help. They’ll also be able to review the pros and cons of different treatment options with you. The goal of your physiotherapist will be to help restore pain-free movement and function of your spine.
How can I reduce and prevent back pain?
One of the best things you can do to prevent back pain is to keep your back flexible and strong.
There are some basic lifestyle changes that can also help prevent back pain and reduce the risk of having back problems. Here are eight things you can do at home to help reduce the risk of getting back pain:
Get regular exercise. Including 30 minutes of moderate exercise such as walking, low impact aerobics, swimming, yoga, Thai Chi, Pilates or group exercise classes as well as incorporating core muscle strengthening and stretching exercises into your exercise regime will help keep your back strong by improving muscle support and posture.
Manage your weight. Working towards a healthy weight will help reduce the pressure placed on your spine and reduce the risk of back pain and injuries.
Quit smoking. Smoking is a risk factor for back pain.
Work on your posture. Having a good posture will reduce your risk of developing back pain. Try and be aware of your posture; don’t slouch and use supports for your back and footrests where needed.
Lift and carry safely. If the load is too heavy for you, then use a trolley or get another person to help you. When lifting heavier things in general, remember to squat, keep your back straight, hold the object as close to your body as possible and use your legs to help you lift and rise.
Take time to relax. Stress is a known risk factor in non-specific back pain. Learning relaxation techniques can help manage and reduce muscle tension caused by stress.
Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep is an important part of your overall health. To ensure your back is properly supported while you sleep, use a mattress that is firm enough to ensure your shoulders, hips and buttocks are supported and your spine is straight. Avoid using a pillow that pushes your neck into a steep angle while sleeping.
Stretch regularly. If you have to sit or stand for long periods of time, try and take an hourly stretch break to loosen your muscles and prevent stiffness.
If you are experiencing back pain, then staying active is important – slow gentle movements will be far more beneficial than bed rest. You can also use heat and simple medications such as ibuprofen or another anti-inflammatory to help with back pain relief. If you are concerned about your back pain, then book an appointment to see your local physiotherapist.
Phytness Healthcare is here to help you with your back pain
We have developed a reputation for being passionate about helping our patients get better. To ensure we stay on top of our profession we are committed to generous consultation times and ongoing staff education, qualifications and training. We believe in ensuring you receive tailored programs, innovative treatments and prevention based on your needs and research. With Phytness HealthCare you are choosing a team who cares.
We offer the convenience of:
longer opening hours 8am-7pm Monday-Thursday, 8 am - 6 pm Friday and Saturday mornings
free easy parking at all clinics.
HICAPS on-site health fund claims.
Book an appointment
If you are looking for quality physiotherapy, home visits, sports medicine or treatment, clinical pilates or remedial massage, book your appointment online or call us on (02) 4285 1725 to make an appointment.
The information in this article is general in nature and is intended for general educational purposes only. We recommend you book an appointment with your health practitioner to ensure you receive the correct diagnosis and treatment for your individual situation.