Back pain is very common and is a major cause of absence from work. Research has shown that problems related to the back may affect over 60% of the UK’s population at some stage in their lives. It can be severe and debilitating, either in acute episodes, or as chronic pain, having a significant impact on quality of life.
Problems with the back may also cause symptoms in more remote areas such as the buttocks, groin, hips and legs. Symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, fatigue, clicking jaw, pins and needles, and digestive disturbance may also be caused by problems in the neck and spine. In addition to this, research shows that chronic pain is often associated with depression, anxiety and poor sleep.
Back pain does not always arise immediately after an injury and may seem to occur for no reason, or as the result of a very minor strain. The body is very good at accommodating the stress and strain it is put under, and adapting to injuries. However, the disruption brought about by an injury can build up over a period of time and often symptoms begin insidiously.
As the body gets older (over 25 years!) it begins to lose some of the elasticity which gives the body the flexibility to cope and adapt. In particular this applies to the discs between the vertebrae and the joint cartilage. These need to be able to move within their maximum range, increasing local circulation and nutrition to the surrounding fluids and tissues.
There are some common contributors to back pain:
- Occupational strain: Habitual bad posture such as poor seating or poor layout of workstations can place strain on areas of the spine and lead to back pain.
- Lifting strains: Lifting heavy or awkward weights including babies, children and shopping can cause back strain. If the back is already under stress from another cause it may only take lifting a small weight to cause problems, usually at the weakest point in the spine.
- Childbirth strains: During childbirth the mother’s pelvis can become distorted as the baby’s head descends. In many cases distortion corrects itself, but if severe it can remain for many years and disrupt spinal and pelvic mechanics. This can cause very diverse symptoms including backache and headaches.
- Falls and direct trauma: The spine is often jerked or twisted during accidents or falls, and parts can become quite impacted or compressed. Sit-down falls such as falling on ice or a slippery surface are particularly damaging, because in addition to the direct impact on the base of the spine, the impact of the head onto the top of the spine causes strain at the top of the neck. Headaches and neck problems are very common after this type of injury.
- Road traffic accidents: Even at relatively low speed, the body is subjected to sudden deceleration forces which can affect the whole body, not just the neck.
NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) guidelines recommend manipulative therapies including osteopathy for the treatment of low back pain.