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Back pain

How does the spine work?

how does the spine workYour back is made up of 24 bones known as vertebra sitting on top of one another. Where each vertebra meets another three joints are formed that include: two bony (facet) joints at the back and a soft inter-vertebral joint formed by the discs at the front of the spine. The discs help absorb shock on the spine and the facet joints control the spinal column’s flexibility. At each joint there are also ligament and muscles that attach to the vertebrae to control and facilitate the movement of the spine.

Simple back pain

simple back painWith so many joints, ligaments and muscles throughout the spine it is unsurprising that back pain is so common. Back pain, by itself, is not normally a serious medical condition and simple cases will usually improve or resolve in four to six weeks. The best advice for simple backache is to stay as active as possible and get on with your normal activities and to take simple over–the–counter painkillers and NSAIDs like paracetamol and ibuprofen. Initially you may rest a bit more if you have muscle spasm, but it is also important to improve muscle strength through exercise.

‘Sciatica’ / Symptoms in the legs

sciatic nerveSometimes back pain causes pain in the legs which doctors often refer to as ‘Sciatica’ because the sciatic nerve is most commonly involved which runs down the back of the leg. Pain can actually be felt in the buttock, back of the thigh, calf or into the foot. There is nothing wrong with the leg itself, but the pain is caused from the injury at the back irritating the nerve. These symptoms are often described as referred pain. You may also experience numbness or pins and needles in the legs and feet.

When should I see the doctor?

If you are in severe pain, prolonged pain that doesn’t resolve after 4-6 weeks you may need to see a doctor. Also if you notice weakness of the muscles in your leg, especially if you can’t pull your foot up towards you, you should see a doctor. You should also seek medical advice immediately if you lose control of your bladder or bowel function or you have numbness or pins and needles in both legs.

What can help?


The most effective way to ease stiffness and pain is through exercise. Exercise is also crucial for improving muscular control, strength and stamina, general fitness, flexibility and improving your mood.  If back pain persists, the lack of normal movement can cause muscle to become idle and make it more likely that you could reinjure your back again in the future. So it’s important that you don’t rest for too long and you do as many of your normal activities as possible. If you are in so much pain that you need prolonged bed rest try to make sure that you move your back as gently as pain will allow.


Over-the-counter pain medication like paracetamol and ibuprofen are very effective for initial pain symptoms. Don’t wait until you have severe pain before you take pain medication. If the pain is impeding your ability to move and exercise it could also affect the time it takes for you to recover. If you have any other medical conditions you should always consult your doctor before taking any pain medication.


If your back pain is persisting and affecting your ability to work or do your everyday tasks and activities you should ask your doctor about seeing a physiotherapist.  A full physiotherapy assessment can identify reasons why your pain is persisting and use manual therapy to address stiff joints and muscles. If applicable, your physiotherapist may also show you exercises to help you manage you back pain. Whether you have stiffness, weakness or instability, these exercises and the other treatments you may receive, could help you return to your normal activities sooner. You may also gain a better understanding of what causes your pain and how to prevent the frequency of future episodes and manage them independently if they do occur.

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