We don't tend to think about our back until something goes wrong. It's a risky strategy. Four out of five people will be affected by back pain at some point. Even mild low-back pain can make life miserable and affect even basic daily tasks. Statistically, if a serious back problem keeps you off work for six months, there's a 50% chance you'll never be able to return. A sobering thought.
The main types of back problems are either Sciatica or Brachialgia
The main types of back problems are either Sciatica or Brachialgia.
Most cases that require an operation are compressions relating to sciatica/cervical nerve issues. 'Sciatica' refers to pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling in the leg.
By far the most common causes of sciatica are a “slipped disc”, which is a degenerate bulge of a lumbar disc, and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal. Or, more rarely, piriformis syndrome (a pain disorder involving the narrow muscle in the buttocks), pelvic injury or fracture, and tumours may all cause these symptoms.
'Brachialgia' refers to similar symptoms in the arm and hand. Symptoms are caused by injury to, or pressure on, components of the sciatic nerve in the spine (or more rarely, the leg).
Common Symptoms of Back Problems
Sciatica pain can vary widely. It may feel like a mild tingling, dull ache, or a burning sensation. In some cases, back problems can cause pain so severe you can't move. The pain most often occurs on one side. Some people have sharp pain in one part of the leg or hip and numbness in other parts. The pain or numbness may also be felt on the back of the calf or on the sole of the foot. The affected leg may feel weak.
The pain caused by back problems will often start slowly. Sciatica pain may get worse after standing or sitting, when sneezing, coughing, or laughing or when bending backwards or walking more than a few yards, especially if caused by spinal stenosis.
Signs and Tests
When you visit your BMI Healthcare consultant with back problems they will perform a physical examination. This may show weakness of knee bending or foot movement; difficulty bending the foot inward or down; abnormal or weak reflexes; or pain when lifting the leg straight up off the examining table. He or she will probably request an MRI scan.
Treatment for Back Problems
Sciatica is a symptom; it's the underlying cause that needs to be identified and treated. In 90% of cases no significant intervention is required and within six weeks recovery occurs on its own. To tackle the often constant pain due to back problems take over-the-counter pain relievers such as Neurofen or Paracetamol. Bed rest is not recommended. Reduce your activity for the first couple of days. Then, slowly start your usual activities after that. Avoid heavy lifting or twisting of your back for the first six weeks after the pain begins. You should start exercising again after 2-3 weeks.
Be Good to Your Back: Follow These Tips to Reduce Your Risk of Back Problems
The first thing to remember is posture, as it's a major cause of back problems. Remind yourself to stand up straight, and if you need support when you're sitting or driving, use a lumbar roll (a specialist cushion) to support your lower back. Avoid bending down for routine tasks such as emptying a washing machine. Instead, lower yourself by bending your knees, allowing your spine to keep relatively straight.
Getting Your Muscles Right
Your spine is a bit like the mast on a ship: it's long and tall and depends on the rigging around it to keep it stable. Similarly, our internal 'rigging' (the muscles in our back, abdomen, buttocks and thighs) has the job of holding the spine stable and straight. If they're out of condition, or out of kilter, the forces on your spine are no longer neutralised - and you start to get back problems.
These muscles can be developed through exercises with a physiotherapist, chiropractor or osteopath. Pilates is an excellent alternative. Regular endurance-type exercise is also important, and even a 20-30 minute power walk can have a positive effect.
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