Lower back pain is very common and in most cases gets better on its own within a few weeks. In most people, a specific cause of back pain cannot be found. Rarely is it anything serious, and we call it non-specific back pain. Non-specific back pain will generally cause discomfort and a feeling of stiffness or tightness along one side of the lower back. The pain may pass into your buttock or thigh. This sort of low back pain can come on after an episode of heavy lifting or heavy exertion. The majority of people will experience an episode of low back pain in their lifetime and in most cases, this will improve within a few weeks without any requirement of treatment from your doctor. You can reduce your risk of making your low back pain worse or preventing it flaring up again, by maintaining a healthy weight, or losing weight if this applies, giving up smoking if relevant, taking regular low-impact exercise and keeping stress levels to a minimum. If your job or hobby involves regular lifting, make sure you learn how to do this properly to protect your back, as this can leave it prone to injury.
Less commonly, back pain can be attributed to a long-term cause, such as degenerative arthritis, a slipped disc, or a muscle strain or sprain. Thankfully rare, but more serious causes include a fracture after an injury, an infection in the bone or disc, compression of the nerves in the lower back, an inflammatory condition or cancer. We'll talk you through the signs to look out for.
If you develop low back pain, it's important to remember that it is very common, usually nothing serious and it usually gets better within a few weeks. However, it can be very painful and difficult to know how to manage until it gets better. There are things you can do to treat your back pain yourself. Keep active: sitting or lying for long periods can actually make your pain worse and slow your recovery. Simple stretching exercises within your limits of discomfort can also help improve your symptoms. Simple painkiller medications such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may help ease soreness so you can get some exercises done, or relieve it at the worst of times. Applying hot or cold packs can also help relieve symptoms.
Most cases of back pain are nothing to worry about and will improve within a few weeks. However, there are certain circumstances when you should seek medical attention: - If your back pain has not started to improve after 6 weeks - If your back pain started after a significant fall or accident - If you have a history of cancer - If you have sciatica affecting both legs, numbness around your bottom or problems with your bowel or bladder control - if you are feeling generally unwell with a fever, and no other flu-like symptoms - if you are aged under 45 and get severe back pain and stiffness first thing in the morning, every morning, lasting for 30 minutes or more, and this has persisted for 3 months or more - often movement will make it feel better If you have any of the above features associated with your back pain your doctor may refer you directly for investigations or to a specialist to identify the cause for your back pain. If you get back pain and you are under 18 or over 50 years old, you should request an urgent appointment with your doctor.
If your back pain has been longstanding, or short-term but has no other concerning features, then a routine appointment with your doctor is reasonable. Your doctor may refer you to a physiotherapist for more specialist management or give you stronger painkillers than those available without prescription. Only rarely does your low back pain require referral to a specialist for further investigation and treatment.