Back pain

4.1.1In 2011 there were more days of sickness absence from work for musculoskeletal problems (including back pain) than any other illness or ailment. A whopping 35 million days were lost in total, and the cost to the NHS is mounting all the time, with many sufferers on painkillers.

Also read How posture affects your health, a guest blog.

Some of the main causes are:

  • driving cars
  • sitting at computers
  • doing housework
  • poor mattresses
  • emotional problems causing tension in the body

Rather than resorting to drugs to suppress the pain there is plenty you can do.

Although back pain is incredibly common there is no reason to put up with it. Although the causes of back pain could be medical in 85 per cent of back pain cases there is no underlying medical condition. The chances are that it has been caused by inappropriate ways of moving, lifting, sitting, standing, walking or running. Therefore there is plenty that you can do about it!

The causes of back pain

  • There may have been specific strain put on the back from heavy lifting, falling, a car accident or similar event.
  • There may be an injury such as a slipped disc.
  • You may be stressed and tensing up your shoulders and muscles causing extra strain on your back.
  • If you are overweight it puts extra strain on the muscles and can cause back pain.
  • Your vertebrae may be out of place and causing pain.
  • You may have arthritis.
  • In some cases back pain may be a symptom of a more serious illness, such as kidney problems or cancer.

What the doctor will say

With all these different causes for back pain there can’t possibly be one answer for them. It is important to see your GP if there is any chance that your back pain could indicate a more serious problem. However, if it is not a medical problem they may not have the answers. Some GPs will refer you to physiotherapy, osteopathy or chiropractic, but many will give you anti-inflammatories and pain killers which only treat the symptoms and do nothing to eradicate the cause. However, back pain clinics are becoming more and more aware of the benefits of the following therapies and may have one or more practitioners available from these disciplines.

What can you try?

The Alexander Technique is totally suitable if the back problem is to do with the way you walk, sit, lie, stand or take part in various activities including sport, playing an instrument or singing. Just about everyone develops bad habits in the way that they do things. For instance, we sit at desks all day long looking at a computer screen. Our shoulders are up to our ears, our backs are bent and our arms and legs may be uncomfortable. The Alexander Technique aims to make you aware of where you are holding tension in the body, shows you how to release it, consequently reducing tension and relieving pain. The Technique is a life skill that you learn and that enables you to improve posture and reduce tension for the rest of your life. To find an out more see Therapies/Alexander Technique.

Osteopathy is based on the premise that if the musculoskeletal system is out of balance it can affect the body’s vital organs. Osteopaths concentrate on the joints, tissues, ligaments and tendons of the body. Some of the treatment is similar to that of a chiropractor, such as making short thrusting movements to the spine to realign the vertebrae. This often results in a clicking sound that most people imagine is their bone clicking but in reality is a gas bubble bursting in the synovial fluid of the joint. As a holistic treatment the osteopath may massage and manipulate and suggest types of exercise to improve the back. It is a regulated profession and should (in theory) be available on the NHS. To find out more see Therapies/Osteopathy.

Chiropractic concentrates on the joints of the spine and the nervous system, The chiropractor needs to have access to the spine so stripping down to underclothes and sitting or lying on the couch is necessary. To correct misalignments the chiropractor physically manipulates the vertebrae, pelvis or other joints to free them and release tension. This usually results in a click as gas bubbles built up in the joints burst. McTimoney Chiropractic is a slightly different version with a lighter technique but the key to the success of the adjustments is that they are fast, light and accurate with no clicking. Chiropractic is a regulated profession and should (in theory) be available on the NHS. To find out more go to Therapies/Chiropractic and Therapies/McTimoney Chiropractic.

Massage always helps, particularly if you use some specific oils like rosemary, lavender or juniper, but it won’t cure the problem.  It depends on whether there is a physical problem that needs manipulation, or whether it is simply muscular tension in which case it may well ease with a good massage. If you can’t afford to pay for one, get your partner to massage you!

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Acupuncture was recently claimed to be the best treatment for bad backs. A German study found that half the back pain patients treated with acupuncture needles found relief for months. Only a quarter of those given drugs felt better. Acupuncture needles are inserted at specific acupressure points along the meridians, consistent with the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach. They are said to release blocked energy in the area where the needles are put in and encourage blood flow to the area. For more information and to find an acupuncturist go to Therapies/Acupuncture.

Herbal medicine may help with the pain because natural anti-inflammatories can be a good alternative to drugs. A registered medical herbalist can often help to find out what the problem is, or you could try Devil’s Claw, Bromelain (pineapple) or Turmeric to see if it  helps.  You must consult a doctor or herbalist before you take herbal remedies if you are on medication as they may not interact well together.

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Bowen Technique is a gentle technique that involves manipulation with the fingers and thumbs along the muscles and tendons. The aim is to stimulate the flow of energy or chi throughout the body enabling it to better heal itself. The practitioner works through clothing making light movements that encourage circulation of blood and lymph, increase mobility and release blocked energy. Read more about it and find a practitioner in Therapies/Bowen Technique.

Yoga comprises a series of postures which stretch out the whole of the body. It involves exercising, stretching, and breathing and has positive effects such as inducing a sense of calmness as well as releasing tension in the body. The postures are designed to massage internal organs, stretch the body and release tension. Learning yoga has beneficial effects for the mind, body, and spirit. For people with particularly bad backs yoga therapy is when postures are used specifically to deal with health problems under the guidance of a specially trained yoga therapy teacher. it is particularly suitable for stress, tight muscles, tension, arthritis and poor posture. To find out about Yoga go to Mind/Yoga or Yoga Therapy.

Pilates consists of small precise movements practised lying down or standing, which help you to become aware of the core muscles supporting spine. It helps to improve posture and flexibility, lengthen and tone muscle and strengthen joints, reduce stress, and ease pain. Although it is not as energetic as aerobics it is quite tough exercise but has proven to be very good for bad backs and is sometimes recommended by doctors or provided in pain clinics. It is particularly good for muscle tension and tightness, arthritis and poor posture. Read more about Pilates in Body/Pilates.

Healthy back at work – top tips

1. Do not stay in one fixed position or focus for too long. Set a timer on the computer as a reminder to check your posture or to take a break.

2. Get some fresh air and a change of environment by taking a walk at lunch time. It’s important to get out of the office, even for just 15 minutes.

3. Get an Alexander Technique teacher to show you how to lie down for a few minutes to let the back relax – depending on your office environment!

4. Make sure your chair is at a good height so that your feet are on the floor or supported by a foot rest. Also, make sure that your desk and keyboard are at the right height.

5. Sit facing squarely on to your desk. Do not twist to face your work station.

6. Sit back in your chair for a moment, let your hands rest flat on your desk beside your keypad, lift your head to look up above your computer and take a few quiet full breaths.

7. Keep your shoulders, neck, arms and hands free from tension. Relax and work calmly. Release your clamped jaw muscles.

8. Do not collapse the wrist or curl fingers. Use a wrist support if necessary.

9. Use a telephone headset if you are using the telephone for extended periods.

10. Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

See Back Pain