Back pain is one of the most common injuries affecting approximately 75% of people at some point in their lifetime. Back pain can start as an acute injury from participating in an obvious activity such as lifting, sports, gardening and shoveling or it can slowly develop over time due to overuse of weak muscles from sitting or standing for prolonged periods. Back pain can often become a chronic injury, meaning it lasts longer than three months, if early signs of back pain are ignored.
What are some early signs of back pain?
A general aching feeling in your back that disappears if you move around is often an early sign that postural muscles in your back are not working to their best ability. When weak muscles become fatigued from overuse they send pain messages to your brain in an effort to let your body know to change positions and use other muscles instead.
Another early sign of back pain is when you feel a muscle “twinge” with a certain activity, such as lifting, pulling or pushing. This pain may last a very short time, sometimes a few seconds, but it is your body letting you know that the muscle being used is not performing that activity properly or to the best of its ability.
Pain or numbness in the legs that can travel below the knees can also be a sign of back dysfunction. Pain can be in one leg or both legs and may come and go or be constant.
What to do if you are experiencing back pain?
It is important to know that weak muscles often become tight muscles so initially trying some gentle back stretches may create length in the muscles so that you are able to move through a larger range of motion when flexing or extending. Lying on your back and hugging both knees to chest is an easy and gentle stretch for your lumbar spine. This can also be done one knee to chest at a time. To stretch your lateral trunk muscles simply lay on your back with both knees bent and feet on the floor and then drop both knees to one side, followed by the other side. To stretch your thoracic spine, sit in a chair with your arms crossed and then turn your body to look over one shoulder. Repeat to the other side. Stretches should be held for approximately 30 seconds, repeated 2-3 times without bouncing and should not be painful.
Once muscles have been stretched they must be strengthened in order to prevent tightening again, as weak muscles become tight. Often the muscles that are visible to us on the outer parts of our trunk perform too much of the workload in helping our bodies move, and the inner core muscles perform too little of the workload. This is a recipe for fatigued outer muscles and weak core muscles. Some simple core strengthening can go a long way in increasing general back health. Remember that muscles do not strengthen overnight and it usually takes about 4-6 weeks for a change in muscle strength to become noticeable. Just because a patient exercises does not mean that the correct muscles are being strengthened.
Back pain can also be due to joints not moving properly. Physiotherapists can restore joint and muscle movement and can also provide you with an exercise program to address and correct the problem in order to get you back on track to performing the activities you enjoy pain free. Education regarding proper lifting technique, posture and using your back safely in other activities is key in maintaining a healthy back.
Research shows that most back pain can be resolved in the first 4 weeks after injury if addressed early. Research also shows that diagnostic imaging such as X-ray and MRI do not affect treatment outcomes in a positive manner. It should also be noted that many patients with abnormal findings on MRI do not experience any back pain at all.
So in short, seeing your physiotherapist early will resolve your back pain much quicker than waiting to have imaging taken.
Things to remember:
1. Correct exercise technique and remaining active will prevent and reduce back pain.
2. If you experience back pain, avoid bed rest and try to move around as much as you can without increasing your pain.
3. If you experience pain, seek out a proper assessment from your local physiotherapist to determine the cause of the pain and the correct treatment option.
4. Imaging such as MRI’s and surgery are rarely beneficial to treatment or needed.
5. Just keep moving!
Stay Healthy Everyone!