According to a 2014 study, upper back pain affects around 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men. The same study found that the problem is more prevalent in white-collar workers who spend most of their working week in a traditional office setting. So, the issue is undoubtedly widespread and something we should all be taking steps to avoid or tackle. To help with this, here are my top do's and don'ts when it comes to dealing with back pain.
Back pain can, unfortunately, be something that we experience on a recurring or permanent basis. This could be linked to:
Conditions like scoliosis and osteoarthritis
Alternatively, back pain can be more of a short-term issue. Some possible reasons for this are:
Injury (e.g. through a sporting incident, fall or car accident)
Poor sleep position
So, what should you do about back pain caused by any of these particular issues?
Do keep active as possible
Although we may need to rest the back after an injury, there are some instances when movement is likely to prove beneficial, such as when the problem is caused by poor posture.
Core-strengthening exercises may be particularly helpful for sufferers of back pain because, as the name suggests, they help to strengthen muscles, as well as helping to reduce stiffness and relieve tension.
Our cat-cow video below is one example of a core-strengthening activity; however, you could also try the following:
Begin by lying flat on your back. Bring your knees to your chest one at a time, taking care to keep the back of your head firmly on the ground as you do so. Wrap your arms around your knees, hold for a few seconds and then release.
Whilst seated in a chair, place your hands on the back of your head and gently turn to the left, hold, then turn to the right. Keep your back straight and your feet firmly placed on the ground as you do so. Also, don't allow the elbows to point forwards.
Lie on your front using a yoga mat or blanket to give you some cushioning. From here, stretch your arms out in front and your legs out behind. Next, gently lift both your arms and legs off of the ground (keep them nice and straight), hold, then lower. Repeat this 3 times.
If your back pain is due to injury, it may help to practice some gentle exercises like walking when the pain has subsided to prevent it from returning.
Do get a good night’s sleep
Research shows that, over time, sleep problems may hinder recovery from chronic lower back pain (LBP).2 Also, in the same piece of research, it was found that those who have musculoskeletal pain on top of insomnia have an even lower likelihood of recovery.
So, addressing any sleep issues could have a knock-on effect on any pain issues you are dealing with.
I always find it helps to make my bedroom cosy in the evenings to help me drift off. Turn off the main light, switch off any technology and use lamps to ensure the lighting isn't too harsh.
As well as this, it can help to turn on some chilling music and change into comfy clothing. You could even light a lavender candle (just remember to blow it out before you get sleepy!) or pop a few drops of lavender essential oils on your pillow.
Another option is to use a gentle herbal sleep remedy, such as Dormeasan Sleep, to help you reach a more restful night's sleep.
Interestingly, research has shown that paracetamol could be no more effective than placebo when it comes to treating back pain.
In a 2014 study published in The Lancet, participants with back pain were given either a placebo or paracetamol to treat the problem. The results showed that their speed of recovery was virtually the same - those taking paracetamol recovered in 17 days whilst those taking a placebo recovered in 16.3
There are certain instances when it is very important to seek advice from your doctor about back pain. For example:
The pain does not ease, even with rest
The problem is caused by an acute injury, such as a fall
You have a fever
There is any weakness or numbness in the area.
If this is not the case but the problem persists, there are various specialists that could offer assistance:
Physical therapists – they use muscle release techniques to ease pain, plus they can explain how to do strengthening and stretching exercises to help relieve upper back and neck pain.
Chiropractor – this is a complementary medicine where the expert uses their hands to relieve problems in the muscles, joints and bones.
Osteopath – here the expert helps to manipulate muscle and bone. This is a good option if you are dealing with a long-term or structural issue in your back.
Massage – particularly helpful if your back pain is caused by spending long hours at a desk.
Acupuncture – another form of complementary medicine that can help with pain relief. Small needles are inserted into the affected area which stimulates nerves under the skin and results in the release of pain-relieving endorphins.
Don’t carry too much
When suffering from back pain, it almost goes without saying that you should not put any extra load on the area.
So, avoid carrying a heavy backpack or handbag around on a regular basis – a bum-bag provides a more comfortable, and increasingly fashionable, option!
Other things to avoid are heavy lifting, repetitive movements and poor posture when lifting. These are really big risk factors for injury in the first place, plus they are unlikely to do you any favours if you already have discomfort in the back area.
If you can't avoid a bit of heavy lifting, the graphic below should give a little more guidance on how to do it safely.
Don’t choose processed foods
Diet can be a really crucial part of managing pain, and inflammatory foods, including pizza, white bread, cake and fried foods, are most definitely ones to avoid.
You can make healthier food choices by cooking your own meals with whole ingredients, rather than relying on processed or takeaway options. Plenty of fresh foods in your diet will ensure your body is provided with a good supply of nutrients like magnesium which are essential for muscle and joint health.
As mentioned, office workers are more likely to suffer from back pain; however, you could buck this trend by working on your posture and your office set-up.
Here are a few key points to ensure a more comfortable working environment:
Ensure your laptop or computer is sitting at eye height. If necessary, use a few books or cardboard boxes to raise the level of your screen.
Make sure your feet are flat on the ground. Use a footrest and avoid crossing your legs over.
Sit up straight, using a cushion or lumbar support to give your back more support if it is needed.
Make sure your arms are at right angles to the desk when typing. A wrist rest can be a little bonus here too.
Finally, practice regular stretches throughout the working day – our Get Active advisor Louise has a handy blog on stretches to do at your desk which you may want to follow.