An introduction to chronic back pain
Chronic back pain is defined by the length of time you are suffering from pain in your lower back, rather than the severity of your pain. Chronic back pain is pain which lasts longer than three months. This may be continuous pain or intermittent, severe or mild. Often the cause of chronic back pain is difficult to determine, making it all the more difficult to treat.
What are the causes of chronic back pain?
The cause of chronic back pain can range from mechanical problems in your back to diseases or health conditions. Some of the more common causes include:
- Osteoarthritis or rheumatism – this is a degenerative disease which affects the cartilage which cushions and prevents joints. As we grow older, this cartilage begins to wear away causing pain and stiffness
- Slipped disc – this is a colloquial name for a herniated disc, when the gel like substance inside a disc begins to leak out and put pressure on other parts of the spine.
- Sciatica – this is when the sciatic nerve is compressed or irritated. This can lead to pain in the back and lower down the legs
- Fracture – if you break a spinal bone, this can cause severe pain and reduce mobility. You may experience pain even after the fracture has healed
- Spinal stenosis – this is when the spaces between the vertebrae becomes narrower. This puts pressure on the spinal cord and may compress the nerves
- Tumour – this is relatively rare. A tumour growing near your spine will cause pain and restriction of movement.
What treatments are available?
The treatment which will offer you the most relief from your symptoms will be one which is targeted at solving the cause of the problem. It is important to realise that there is rarely a quick and easy cure for back pain, and many treatments take some time before they offer relief. Many of these need to be repeated to ensure that the back pain doesn’t return.
- Home remedies – these are remedies or treatments which you can put in place at home, often after being guided or recommended by a medical professional. It is important to keep active and moving to keep your back strong and supple. There are various simple back exercises which you can regularly perform. Make sure that you are holding a good posture when standing and sitting as often poor posture leads to back problems.
- Complementary therapies – these include chiropractic treatments and osteopathy which include manual manipulations to realign and balance the spine. Techniques such as the Alexander technique can also be helpful as they teach correct posture and release tension from the body.
- Acupuncture – this is when tiny needles are inserted into the body in particular points. It has been shown to help with many medical conditions and is particularly effective for back pain.
- Injections – there are different types of injections designed to help with back pain. Steroids or anaesthetics can be injected straight into the root of the nerve or into a facet joint, the point at which vertebrates connect.
- Surgery – this is usually a last resort type of treatment and would only be used if all other treatments have failed. The type of surgery you would need depends on the cause of your back pain.
- Herbal remedies – these can be used alongside other treatments to help ease pain or inflammation. Arnica gel can be applied externally at the site of the pain, while Devil’s claw can be taken internally for more general or widespread joint and muscle pain.
Facts about chronic back pain
- It is estimated that about 80% of the population will experience back pain during their lives. About 7% of these will suffer from chronic back pain
- During one working day in the UK, about 1% of the population is off sick because of back pain, making it the most common reason for people to report off work for sickness
- The NHS spends about £1 billion a year on back pain, corresponding to up to 2% of the gross national profit being spent on back problems.
- During one year up to half of the adult population will be suffering from back pain1.