Around 75% of us will suffer from back pain at some stage in our lives. But what causes it, and what is the best course of action to cope with the pain, and speed up recovery?

The back is a complex system of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves, which all work together to produce the strength and movement that we take for granted. Problems, and pain, occur when this system becomes strained or damaged, or more rarely, when it becomes diseased. For the spinal cord – the main communication cable between your body and brain.

This article on back pain is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

Simple Lower Back Pain

In most cases, problems are described as simple lower back pain – that is, pain caused by a simple mechanical cause such as a strain or injury. That is not to say that the pain itself is simple; it can often be very severe. This kind of back pain accounts for as many as 19 out of 20 cases.

Simple lower back pain is most often caused, or exacerbated, by lifestyle factors, including:

  • Poor posture and slouching
  • Bad driving position
  • Incorrect lifting technique
  • Poor support from furniture such as chairs and beds
  • Taking part in a new or excessive level of physical exertion

In addition, being generally unfit and/or overweight puts a huge amount of stress on the back, as the muscles will not be as strong as they should be and are being asked to carry more weight than they’re designed for.

Because the cause of back pain can build up over a period of time, it is often difficult for your doctor to pinpoint the exact reason for your back pain. Damage to muscles and tendons is unlikely to show up on x-rays or other tests, so you may find that your GP diagnosis is rather vague. This is not necessarily a cause for alarm as the treatment for most minor back injuries is the same.

However, if you find yourself with a back injury that you cannot put down to a specific incident or injury, you should look at the factors in the list above to try and identify for yourself where the problem may lie. If you don’t address the root cause, the chances that are the problem will occur again at some point in the future.


Contrary to the long held belief, you should not treat simple back pain with bed rest. Recent research has shown that it’s far more effective to stay as active as possible, using simple painkillers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, to control the pain. Since diagnosis is difficult, and largely irrelevant in the case of simple back pain, there can be little to gain from visiting your GP in the first instance. In many cases, the pain will subside in three to four weeks, and the vast majority of people will be pain-free after six. If your symptoms persist beyond this time, or increase in severity, either suddenly or gradually, this is the time to visit your GP.

Other causes

While most instances of back pain are down to simple injuries and strains, there are some more serious causes, including:

  • Nerve root pain
  • Prolapsed disc
  • Arthritis
  • Tumours
  • Infections
  • Pressure from neighbouring structures.

While the pain from these more complex causes may be hard to distinguish from simple back pain, there are a number of factors that could indicate this is the case. If you experience any of the following, you should consult your GP:

  • The pain grows gradually over a period of days
  • You have redness or swelling on your back
  • The pain is not helped by lying down
  • You experience referred pain in the legs, groin, chest, or upper back
  • You experience numbness in your legs, feet, or groin
  • You have any problems controlling your bladder or bowels

The last two symptoms are particularly important as they can indicate a very serious problem called Cauda Equina Syndrome. This must be treated urgently to prevent permanent damage to the nerves supplying the bladder and genital area. If you experience these symptoms, you should consult your doctor or local A&E department immediately.

However, these conditions are extremely rare, and most cases of back pain, even though they may feel serious and severe to you, are likely to be caused by the simple back pain factors discussed above. Manage your discomfort with painkillers, keep moving as much as possible, and you should feel fine in just a few weeks.

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