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Back Pain Symptoms

Back pain symptoms most commonly manifest themselves in the lower back but may also affect other parts of the spine

Introduction

Back pain most commonly gives rise to symptoms such as stiffness or ache in the lower back. However pain can also occur as high up as the neck or as low down as the buttocks.

In all cases, symptoms will include a degree of loss of movement of the affected area of the back. In this page we will look at the main symptoms back pain can cause and also some ways to ease and treat the pain.

Symptoms of back pain

Back pain is a very common problem and many people will experience it at some point during their lives. Most often, it is not a problem that should worry you as it is rarely an indication of an underlying serious health issue.

Back pain symptoms most often affect the lower back but can also affect the upper back, giving rise to pain in the neck and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms tend to improve within a few days.

Depending on how long symptoms last, back pain can be categorised as ‘acute’ or ‘chronic’.

  • acute back pain – lasts less then six weeks
  • sub-acute back pain – lasts between six weeks and three months
  • chronic back pain – lasts longer than three months

The most common symptoms in all these cases are pain, stiffness and limitation of movement.

In rarer and more serious cases, back pain can cause symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • swelling and heat in the back
  • pain in the legs and knees
  • incontinence
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • numbness of the limbs
  • unexplained weight loss
  • pain that is worse at night

If any of these so called ‘red flag symptoms’ occur, your GP must be contacted immediately as they may be indicating a more serious underlying problem to the pain.

What doctors can do for back pain

Back pain is not a problem that can be immediately fixed and whilst doctors may be able to help with symptoms, they will most likely not be able to ‘cure’ the problem. However, your GP will be able to:

  • check for a serious, underlying problem to the pain
  • improve and discuss posture
  • advise on activity levels
  • if needed, devise a weight-loss programme
  • prescribe painkillers
  • advise on individual needs of patient

Doctors may advise you to go to a physiotherapist or other complementary practitioner to seek advice.

Treating symptoms of acute low back pain

Treatment can include:

  • Pain killers. Some people find conventional painkillers such as paracetamol or aspirin can be effective as the first-line treatment for symptoms of back pain. In some cases, anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can be used. Your GP may also prescribe other similar drugs in stronger doses, depending on the specific needs of the individual
  • Hot and cold treatments. Taking a bath or putting an ice pack on the affected area can be an effective way of reducing symptoms of back pain. Some people alternate between the two which may also reduce any tissue swelling
  • Relaxation. This is very important as releasing muscle tension is a crucial part of easing pain symptoms. Stress or anxiety caused by worrying about the condition has been found to make pain more intense and it is important to remember that in most cases, back pain is not a serious condition and can normally be treated very effectively by a range of therapies.
  • Rest. Although in the past doctors would advise patients to stay in bed and rest when experiencing back pain, it has been shown that keeping active and moving will improve symptoms of stiffness and tension, especially in the lower back. Activity should be limited to gentle exercise, even if it is just moving around the house or taking a walk. Some people find a regular daily swim to be helpful. Exercise may cause some discomfort, but this will be usual. However, look out for anything which causes severe pain as this should be avoided.

Treating symptoms of chronic back pain

Chronic back pain (lasting more than six weeks) should be treated by a GP who will advise and prescribe a range of different treatments. These may include:

  • An exercise programme, including physiotherapy to strengthen muscles and improve posture
  • Acupuncture or other complementary therapies
  • Antidepressants. Although usually used to treat depression these have also been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of persistent pain
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy will help manage the pain and change a patient’s attitude to the condition
  • Surgery is used as a last resort when all other treatments fail.

Complementary treatments for back pain

Many people reading these pages will be interested to know the role of complementary medicine, especially herbal remedies, in treating the symptoms of back pain.

  • Osteopathy is now a mainstream treatment for back pain and accepted by many doctors
  • Chiropractic treatment is another form of physical therapy and involves the use of short, sharp thrusts to help correct any misalignment of the spine
  • Acupuncture has been shown to treat symptoms of pain and is sometimes combined with both osteopathic or chiropractic treatments
  • If your back pain symptoms are the result of wear and tear on your spine, you might wish to try the supplement Glucosamine
  • Arnica gel can help to reduce symptoms of muscular pain and stiffness
  • The herb Devil’s claw has been used traditionally to relieve pain in a number of health conditions, including rheumatism, joint pain and back pain.

Further reading:
Back pain
Back pain causes
Lower back pain
Upper back pain
Lumbago
Back pain exercises