Back pain is a pain felt in the back, usually the lower back.

Back pain is common and affects most people at some point. Causes include problems with the spinal muscles, nerves, bones, discs or tendons. It can be triggered by poor posture from standing, sitting or lifting something heavy.

There are two forms of back pain:

  • Acute back pain appears suddenly and persists for about three months
  • Chronic back pain gradually develops over a longer period and causes long-term problems – often recurrently.

Back pain can range from slight discomfort to debilitating pain. Most back pain — even severe back pain — goes away on its own in four to six weeks.

Back pain can also result from more serious injuries, such as a vertebral fracture or ruptured disk; from arthritis and other age-related changes in your spine; and from certain infections.

Risk factors for back pain include age, weight, fitness, occupation, genetics, ethnicity, during a women’s period, smoking and diseases such as cancer. Back pain during pregnancy is also common.

According to a study published in the journal Anesthesiology, a new high-frequency form of spinal cord stimulation therapy has the capacity to deliver more effective pain relief of back pain without any unwanted side effects. Read more here.

What are its symptoms?

Back pain may be characterised by tension, soreness or stiffness, particularly in your lower back.

Symptoms differ between acute or chronic back pain. It typically manifests itself through stiffness and immobility.

If your sore back is accompanied by other symptoms, you need to see a doctor as this may indicate something more serious such as arthritis, a herniated disk or a kidney infection. It may also reflect retroperitoneal pathology, such as a tumour or pancreatitis. These symptoms may include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Joint pain
  • Swelling and immobility of the back
  • Fever and headache
  • Pain in the limbs
  • Numbness of the lower limbs or other parts of the body
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Worsening pain at night when sleeping

How is it diagnosed?

A diagnosis will typically involve your doctor questioning you about your symptoms and conducting a physical examination.

If he/she suspects an injury to the back, tests may be ordered. Also, if the doctor suspects the back pain might be due to an underlying cause, or if the pain persists for too long, further tests may be recommended. These include:

  • X-rays: These will show the alignment of the bones and whether the patient has arthritis or broken bones.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computerised tomography) scans: These are useful for revealing herniated disks or problems with tissue, tendons, nerves, ligaments, blood vessels, muscles and bones.
  • Bone scan: This is used for detecting bone tumours or compression fractures caused by brittle bones (osteoporosis).
  • Electromyography or EMG: The electrical impulses produced by nerves in response to muscles is measured with this. This can confirm nerve compression.

What are your treatment options?

Back pain usually resolves itself without medical intervention.

Home remedies such as rest and hot-cold compresses, and over-the-counter medication such as aspirin or ibuprofen can ease the pain and keep you active.

Resting is helpful, but should not usually last more than a couple of days — too much rest may actually cause your back to stiffen up.

Other options for treatment of back pain include:

  • Physiotherapy
  • Osteopathy
  • Chiropractic treatment
  • Exercises
  • Acupuncture
  •  “Hands on” (manual) therapy, such as massage or spine manipulation

As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with back surgery. Your doctor will discuss associated risks with you.

Can it be prevented?

There are steps you can take to prevent back pain. These include:

  • Ensuring you maintain a good posture
  • Be mindful when getting up from a sitting or lying position. Don’t twist, do it suddenly or at an awkward angle
  • Don’t place too much pressure on your back and ensure it’s strong and supple by exercising regularly. Good options are swimming, walking, yoga and Pilates. 
The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in December 2015