Published on Discovery Channel Health, 30 August 2002
For many people a bad back is part of life. A staggering 80 per cent of us will have at least one day of extreme back pain in our lives and half of all adults in the UK get it badly every year.
But just because it’s common, it doesn’t mean it’s any less miserable. Everyday tasks can become a struggle and the constant nagging makes you tetchy at best and heavily depressed at worst. No wonder then the condition is one of the main causes of days off work.
Back pain is also extremely costly. An estimated 11 million working days are lost each year, worth £5 billion. There are 1 million people in the UK officially disabled with the condition, costing £140 million in GPs time, at least £500 million in NHS bills and £250 million spent on private healthcare.
Exercising your back
The problem is that despite our increasing knowledge about the causes of bad backs, more people than ever are suffering, and at younger ages. Why? Because of our sedentary modern lifestyle. From bed to car to computer desk to car to sofa, we’re hardly exercising our backs at all.
Exercise, you see, is key. Nia Taylor, deputy chief executive of charity BackCare, is keen to press the point home. “The more fit or active you are, the less likely you are to suffer,” she says. And that also means exercising when you have a bad back.
Ms Taylor says, contrary to popular belief, spending a few days in bed if you have back pain is the worst thing to do. Chartered physiotherapist Jenny Wigram agrees, “We hope GPs have got the message that people with back pain have got to keep active – within limitations.” But, according to BackCare, a quarter of people with back pain are still advised to rest by their GPs.
The best way of dealing with back pain is, of course, to try to avoid it in the first place. Chiropractor Tim Hutchful from the British Chiropractic Association says most people have missed the point when they complain that “the simplest thing” put their back out. “A back problem is a culmination of different factors, accrued over time,” he explains.
So rather than wait until they get a searing pain, people need to look at their posture, how they sit and how much exercise they give their back, especially if they have a job that includes repetitious tasks.
New laws will soon force employers to supply health and safety information, but many businesses still don’t fully understand back pain. Ms Taylor says, “Employers have to be more prepared to be flexible, for example have someone come in for a few hours a day after being off for back pain and then gradually increase that up to a normal day.”
Schooling can be bad for your health
Jenny Wigram and Bristol osteopath Ed Gilbert are particularly concerned about the number of children they are seeing. “We are barely stemming the flow,” Mr Gilbert says. “Back care should be made a part of the core curriculum.”
Both cite the same causes – “one-size-fits-none” school furniture, overloading thanks to removal of pupil’s desks or lockers, and the tendency to carry bags on one shoulder.
Ms Wigram says that tackling the issues when young is essential if far greater problems are to be avoided later in life. “Once you have had acute back pain, it is far more likely to occur again.” And if you’re 15 when that happens, you’ve got plenty of time for recurrences.
Keep on moving
So what should you do if you have a bad back? The answer is universal but perhaps best summed up by Tim Hutchful. “People with pain should ‘rest actively’. I know that sounds like a politician’s phrase but it means potter about, don’t sit too long, don’t stand too long.” By moving about and dealing with the pain, people also tend to focus on it less.
As for exercise, stay active, but stop if you get any pain. Jenny Wigram stresses that every person and every back problem is different. “It is important to get the right exercise, so I give every patient a set of custom exercises,” she says.
Most importantly, if you have a recurring pain, go and see someone – your GP, an osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist. Back problems are rarely so serious that they will need surgery, but a professional will soon pick up any warning signs. An expert will also be able to help you deal with the pain and change your lifestyle to reduce the chances of it happening again.
Painkillers or anti-inflammatory drugs may help but, if you don’t tackle the cause, the pain will be back. Tim Hutchful gives the following analogy – “Pain is the fire alarm telling you something may be wrong. It may be a false alarm, maybe not. A painkiller will turn off that alarm. Anti-inflammatories will tackle the fire. But a chiropractor, for example, will remove the kerosene.”