Advice | Back Pain Facts

There are many myths about back pain, some of which are harmless, but many of which can and do cause real fear to people experiencing back pain.  Pain does not mean damage!  In fact, back pain is extremely common and in the vast majority of cases it is mild, treatable and short-lived.  To explain it further, here are our top 10 “Back Facts” – some of which you might find surprising!


1) Your back is stronger than you think

Most people will experience back pain at some point in their lives.  It can be disabling and worrying, but it is very common and rarely dangerous.

The spine is a strong, stable structure which is not easily damaged, so in most cases the cause of pain is a strain or sprain.  In 98% of these cases (according to research) people recover fairly quickly, and many do so without treatment.  Some people will experience repeat episodes which can be difficult, but again they are rarely dangerous.


2) You rarely need an MRI scan or an X-Ray, and it can do more harm than good

Sometimes, when perfectly normal degenerative changes show up on a scan patients can become fearful and, as a consequence, they avoid the very activities they should be doing which would them feel better, such as exercise and general movement. 

In rare cases there may be an underlying or more serious problem that requires further investigation and in such instances your GP or chartered physiotherapist will refer you for a scan.  Symptoms which may require further investigation are as follows:

  • Feeling unwell with your back pain, such as fever or significant sweating that wakes you at night.
  • Difficulty passing urine or feeling the need to pass water that is not there.
  • Impaired sexual function such as loss of sensation during intercourse.
  • Numbness/tingling in your genitals or buttocks.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.
  • Loss of power in your legs.

Please note that these symptoms account for just 2% of cases; so, if your GP or physiotherapist does not refer you for a scan take it as a good sign – it means there is nothing to worry about!


3) Avoid bed-rest, stay in work and gradually resume normal activities

Scientific studies now indicate that prolonged rest and avoidance of activity for people with low back pain actually leads to higher levels of pain, greater disability, poorer recovery and longer absence from work.

 In the first few days of a new episode of low back pain, avoiding aggravating activities may help to relieve pain.  However, staying as active as possible and gradually returning to normal activity is important in aiding recovery.  This includes staying in work where possible. It is normal to move differently and more slowly during the first few days of back pain, but be aware that this altered movement can be unhealthy if continued long term.


4) You should not fear bending or lifting 

Bending and lifting is not a cause of back pain, although many people believe it to be.  While an injury can occur if you pick up something awkwardly, this is likely to be a strain or sprain. 

The most important thing is to practice and get familiar with carrying different loads and weights in comfortable, efficient way.  We all run differently, and it is perfectly normal for us to find our own techniques for lifting.


5) Exercise and Activity reduce and prevent back pain

Exercise is proven to be very helpful for tackling back pain and it is also the most effective strategy to prevent future episodes.

Start slowly and build up both the amount and intensity.  Don’t worry if it is sore to begin with – you won’t be damaging your back.  No one exercise is more effective than another, so just pick an exercise that you enjoy.  Try to pick one that fits in with your daily schedule and that is possible to maintain.


6) Painkillers will not speed up your recovery

There is no strong evidence on the benefits of painkillers and they do not speed up recovery. 

You should only use painkillers in conjunction with other measures, such as exercise, and even then only as a short term option, as they can bring side effects.  Exercise is safer and cheaper, and is the preferred treatment method.


7) Surgery is rarely needed

There are some uncommon back conditions which cause pressure on the nerves in the legs and the patient gets leg symptoms such as pain, pins and needles or numbness. 

Surgery can help the leg symptoms but it is important to understand that surgery is not always required.  The results for back surgery are no better in the medium and long term than non-surgical interventions.  A non-surgical option, which includes activity and exercise, should always come first.


8) Get good quality sleep

The importance of sleep in tackling back pain has become increasingly clear in recent years.

This is because it reduces stress and improves your feeling of overall well-being, making you less susceptible to the triggers of pain in the first place and helping you to cope when it does occur.  Aim for 7.5-8 hours of sleep a night and a regular routine.  It is also very important to know that there is no best position or type of mattress – whatever feels most comfortable for you is best.


9) You can have back pain without any injury or damage

Many factors can cause back pain and often there is a combination of factors involved:

  • Physical factors such as “protecting” the back and avoiding movement.
  • Psychological factors such as feeling down or stressed, fear of damage or of not getting better.
  • General health and lifestyle factors such as being rundown, tired, overweight, not getting enough good quality sleep or physical activity.
  • Social triggers such as difficult relationships at work or home, low job satisfaction or stressful life events, like a family bereavement or illness.

Crucially, it is important to know that pain is 100% real and never “all in your head”. Each of the contributing factors can turn up the volume on your pain, and gaining a greater understanding of this can put you in a better position for coping.


10) If it doesn’t clear up, seek help but don’t worry

If your back pain persists, make an appointment to see your GP or Physiotherapist.

Effective management of back pain will reduce your chances of future episodes, while improving your strength, overall health and well-being.  At Mid West Physiotherapy in Limerick, our team of Chartered Physiotherapists are highly trained and experienced in the treatment and management of back pain.  If you would like to enquire about our services, please contact us via this website or by ringing our clinic directly on 061-201444.



For more information on back pain, visit the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy website which has a number of helpful articles on the subject.

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