Are you afraid of Back Pain?!


Halloween is fast approaching! A time traditionally associated with telling scary stories and watching horror films. I thought this would be an opportune time to talk about something else that a lot of people seem to fear – Back Pain!! And just like fake spiders and cobwebs, there’s nothing to be scared about!

And here’s why…..

As kids we are restricted from viewing movies, tv shows and internet sites to protect us from violent or frightening language and images. Even as adults visually alarming images and language can be disturbing and frightening and are considered too disturbing to show on mainstream tv. However, with the development of the internet, there are few things we are censored from anymore. Consequently, we have access to information that can be difficult to interpret and decipher, and information that is false or inaccurate.

Health professionals can help you do exactly this, sift through all the information out there and help you interpret it! Recent statistics show that Low Back Pain now accounts for more disability than any other health condition in the world. With all the inaccurate information now widely available on low back pain, scary images of people disabled by their backs and health professionals using scary words like ‘inflammation, ‘degenerative’ and ‘bulging’- these statistics are no surprise!

With that in mind, I wanted to outline, based on the most up-to-date research evidence, a few things I think you should know about your back! Just like in a horror movie when the villain takes off his mask revealing his identity, you realise that the fear is often in the unknown! So please read the following few tips that will hopefully make ‘back pain’ a little less scary!

1. Your Back is STRONG

Thankfully, our spines are inherently a strong and stable structure. Most of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives just like the common cold. And like a cold, it isn’t something to worry about and is very rarely dangerous in nature. The spine is strong and stable and most back aches and pains are due to a simple sprain or strain! In most people (90%), back pain is because of simple soft tissue injuries that we know will heal quickly.

2. Scans are RARELY useful

People always seem to think the worst and want to be referred for scans. I’m sorry to disappoint, but a lot of the time X-Rays and MRI scans tell you very little about why you are feeling back pain. We all have ‘Degenerative changes’ and ‘bulges’ – these are NORMAL and naturally happen to our spines as we get older, like getting wrinkles on our skin – it’s usually nothing to worry about! In as few as 1% of cases back pain symptoms could suggest a more serious condition. Although very rare, it is important to be aware of these symptoms. These are often known as ‘Red Flag’ symptoms in medical lingo, and if you experience any of these symptoms you should immediately contact your GP. That said, if you have back pain and are over the age of 55 this DOES NOT mean you automatically have a serious spinal pathology!

 Christina O'Connor, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist, Strive Clinic Galway

Christina O'Connor, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist, Strive Clinic Galway

3. Continue your NORMAL daily routines

Just like an ankle sprain or stubbing your toe – back pain will heal in the very same way! Inflammation is a NORMAL part of the bodies healing process! So, don’t be afraid to bend and move your spine as this will promote a quicker recovery and reduce the likelihood of you experiencing another episode. The most up-to-date scientific research shows that those people who stay in bed resting and stop doing their normal daily routines are those who experience worse pain and poorer recovery. It is important to start re-engaging in your daily routine as soon as possible and gradually build back up to your normal level of physical activity.

4. Stay ACTIVE or get ACTIVE

Exercise has been shown to be effective in preventing low back pain and it’s reoccurance. This is particularly importance given that 50% of people that have an episode of low back pain often end up having another episode within 1 year. This is usually because of people disengaging in their normal routine and becoming generally less active as they are worried about injuring their back. If you are worried and this is holding you back from exercising, be proactive and go and speak to a Physiotherapist who can help and advise you about ways to stay active. The recommended guidelines for physical activity are 150 minutes a week and making an effort to work towards this can drastically reduce your risk of having ongoing lower back pain. For more information on physical activity guidelines please follow this link.

5. Pain Relief – if prescribed take it AS prescribed

The combination of not taking pain relief when it is prescribed or taking pain relief and continuing not to remain active – both will have negative effects on your pain! There is no strong evidence to support the use of pain relief alone. Just because you have back pain won’t automatically mean that you need pain relief. Often simply remaining active and continuing to engage in your daily routine is enough to promote recovery from symptoms. That said, pain relief can sometimes be necessary in the short-term to reduce pain levels to allow you to start moving normally again, so if you are prescribed medication you should be taking it at the dosage prescribed. Also, when you are taking pain relief, you still need to keep active as this will help you to recover quicker, so don’t just rely on pain relief alone!

6. Learn to RELAX

There are lots of things that can make you experience back pain – you can experience back pain even when there is no evidence of injury! For example, if you previously sustained an injury to your back when you bent over putting the clothes in the washing machine, your brain might hang on to that memory and start to associate back pain with that activity. This can result in you bracing your stomach muscles and holding your breath every time you do that in the future which can lead to back pain continuing and persisting even after your soft tissues have healed. Similarly, feelings of fear and anxiety can also intensify our experience of back pain. These triggers are individual to you, and identifying these triggers early can help to reduce the likelihood of you suffering from recurrent bouts of back pain. So, if you are worried at all, please speak to your GP or Physiotherapist.

7. Get some SLEEP

Research has also shown that improving your quality of sleep and getting enough sleep is associated with improvements in back pain and disability. So, get to bed at a reasonable time and stop watching Netflix and looking at your phones while in bed!

Happy Halloween!