If you’ve never experienced low back pain, you’re in a very privileged group. I’m not in that group and I can say that it’s only after I had experienced low back pain that I had true compassion for other sufferers.
The smallest of movements can be very painful, the recovery can be slow and effective relief can be difficult to find.
Low back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to Science Daily, affecting an estimated 540 million people at any one time.
And it’s becoming more widespread, according to a report in The Lancet.
Low back pain is getting worse on a global basis, largely because populations are ageing, says the research paper Low back pain: a major global challenge.
It affects all age groups and is generally associated with sedentary occupations, smoking, obesity and low socio-economic status, the research shows. And lifestyle changes and shifts towards even more sedentary work for many mean the risks will only increase.
Most people who have an episode of low back pain recover within six weeks, but two-thirds still have pain after three months. And recurrence is common. For a small number of people, it may even become persistent and disabling, affecting well-being, daily activities and social life.
The Lancet paper notes that most sufferers are not getting the most effective treatment. Recommended first-line treatments – such as advice to stay active and to exercise – are often overlooked. Instead, health professionals in some countries favour less effective treatments such as rest, opioids, spinal injections and even surgery, the report says.
So, if you experience low back pain, what should you do?
First, see a health professional to rule out the more serious causes of pain such as fracture, malignancy (cancer) and infection.
Physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths use manual and physical therapy to treat lower back pain. The treatments can include some form of spinal manipulation and massage, as well as advice to stay active and do specific exercises. This is consistent with the latest research.
Physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths are required by law to be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) to practise in Australia. To be registered, a person must complete a minimum of four years’ study at a university in a degree that includes a focus on non-pharmacological (drug-based), non-surgical management of musculoskeletal conditions, including low back pain.
This group of health professionals can be consulted without the need for a referral from your GP and their services may be at least partially covered by private health insurance. The AHPRA website lists registered practitioners in your area.
The research says one thing to look out for when you see a practitioner is the number of treatments they recommend. Patients usually start with a short course of two to six treatments to see if they help. It shouldn’t take many treatments for a change in symptom pattern to become obvious, the research says.
The message to the public and to health professionals is clear, says the research. People with non-specific low back pain need to learn how to independently manage their pain while remaining active, staying at work and maintaining their social life as far as possible.
Physiotherapist Jason Lee, a regular columnist with YourLifeChoices, advocates warming up before surprising your body with a range of physical activities.
“Extra work around the house or garden often places the body into positions that it is not accustomed to,” he says. “If you usually spend your day sitting in front of a computer or in a sedentary posture, a sudden increase in loading and twisting can place stress and strain through the vertebrae, discs and ligaments around the spine.
“Housework or gardening is no different to exercise or sport. Stretch and warm up before these activities. This will prepare your spine for the work ahead and will help prevent injury.
“Before getting into the garden, try standing with your legs shoulder-width apart and gently lean side to side. Gentle back arches can also be a great warm up exercise prior to getting into the garden.”
Have you suffered from low back pain? Did you stay active? What treatments have been effective?
Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner or health professional.