Putting up with twinges or aches in our backs seems to just be part of life for many people. Back pain is very common, around one in three of us get it every year, according to research, with the lower back being most affected.
While many people resort to over-the-counter painkillers, or a trip to the chiropractor when the pain becomes unmanageable, chiropractor Dr Christian Allard says it’s important to understand the causes rather than just treat the symptoms.
“People will treat the pain rather than the problem,” he says, “and it’s rare that people act on it straight away. They say, ‘It will pass, it will pass.’ When it doesn’t – two, three, four weeks later – that’s when they start to take some action. But at that point, there’s already damage.”
Here, Dr Allard shares the common cause of back pain.
1. Your age
What causes your back pain often depends on your age, and as people get older, the pain tends to become more severe.
“A young person usually has pain caused by a joint, or they’ll have pulled a muscle,” he says. “While an older person in their mid-50s or early 60s will be more likely to have a disc that’s degenerated. And eventually, later on in life, because the spine has no more suspension, it becomes a bone pain. Like a toothache you feel inside your spine.”
2. Discs, not muscles
“When people come to see me, they often say, ‘Oh, it’s muscular’. It’s actually really rare that it’s just muscles, unless it’s a young person. Usually it’ll be a combination of things, joints and muscles and, very often, discs.”
3. An injury
“Most people I see in their mid-20s up to 50s will have one episode in their life where they’ll have hurt themselves, like skiing or football,” Dr Allard says. “After that one episode they’ll start to tear discs. It could be dormant, sometimes for 10, 15, 20 years, but once the pain starts, it doesn’t go away. At this point, there’s a lot of damage that has already happened.”
He adds: “The outer third of the discs is the only part where you’ll feel pain, you could have cracks in the inner part of the disc and not feel it. So pain is not necessarily a good indicator.”
4. Long hours spent sitting
In the inner part each of the discs in our spine there’s liquid made up of water and a substance called proteoglycan. “This is the food for the cartilage,” Dr Allard explains. “Little cells in the end plates secrete the liquid but they’ll only be activated if there’s movement between the vertebrae. So, therefore, if someone is sitting down on a chair for eight hours a day, the body will not feel the need to secrete the liquid into the discs – the discs will starve themselves.
“The body will adapt to make the cartilage weaker, because it doesn’t need to be strong because it doesn’t move much. Then when a person moves more on the weekend, and does something active like gardening, it puts them at risk of injury because they now have weaker discs – that’s why moving enough, all the time, is so important.”
5. A bad seated posture
“When somebody sits, they need to have a good lumbar curve (an inward curve in the lower back). If someone sits down at their desk and they slouch, then that curves disappears, their spine becomes straighter and they absorb less shock when they get up and move about. I always tell people to sit at the back of the chair, and make sure you’ve got a good lumbar support in the chair, so you can stick your bum out a bit.”
6. Your psoas muscle isn’t strong enough
Dr Allard says not many people know about the psoas muscle, which connects to the spine. “If you sit for a long period of time, the psoas muscle shortens and when you get up, your vertebrae pull forward. It often happens when people sit in a car for a long time – you might feel slightly bent forward when you get out, and the first couple of steps you take are shorter. The psoas crosses the joint of the hip, so if it’s too tight for a long time, it will make the hips wear too fast.”
Stretch the psoas with a hip flexor – spread your legs and stretch your hips by pulling the knee forward and then down.
7. Your mattress
“A mattress has to be firm enough but not too firm,” says Dr Allard. “If a mattress is super hard you might end up with shoulder problems if you sleep on your side, or lower back problems if you sleep on your back. You need something that takes the shape of your body but doesn’t let you sink in. I’m a big fan of anything that’s made with natural materials – like latex mattresses.”
Here are some factors that may put you at greater risk of developing back pain.
Being overweight – excess body weight puts extra stress on your back.
Not enough exercise – weak, unused core muscles may increase your chances of experiencing back pain.
Age – unfortunately back pain is more common as you age.
Improper lifting – always use safe lifting techniques.
Smoking – nicotine reduces blood flow and promotes inflammation in the body.
What should I do if I have back pain?
Keep active as much as possible. Current evidence suggests that encouraging early movement and mobility is crucial to a speedy recovery from back pain. Early movement reduces the likelihood of muscular spasm, further joint stiffness or associated muscular weakness. It is recommended that you continue with your normal routine, completing tasks slower or more carefully, if required.
Should I exercise?
When you feel up to it, exercises to strengthen the core muscles are encouraged to help prevent further back pain in the future.
Walking, even for short periods, is great for keeping the spine moving. Generally, the only activities that should be reduced are tasks that may be repetitive and below knee height. Constant and repetitive bending does place an increased load through the low back over a prolonged period.
Most cases of back pain can be relieved using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs).
Your back is a complex structure made up of bones, muscles, nerves and joints, so pinpointing the exact cause of the pain is often difficult.
Do you suffer from back pain? How do you find relief?
– With PA
If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.
Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.