Suffering from back pain - what could it mean?

Posted: Dec 14 2020

Sitting for too long, standing still for too long, and repetitive bending exercises can all lead to back aches which can be painful and inconvenient. For the lucky ones, the pain is only temporary, but for those who suffer from chronic back pain (around 16% of the Australian population) the effects can cause serious disruption to their lives.

Professor Stuart Brierley, Director of the Visceral Pain Research Group within the Flinders University Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute and Director of the Hopwood Centre for Neurobiology at SAHMRI, says there are a few different types of back pain, and that getting to the cause of the problem is essential for long-term relief.

“Pain is our body’s alarm system,” Professor Brierley says. “It lets us know when something is going wrong. Whether the pain lasts for just a couple of days, or in the case of chronic pain, more than 12 weeks, it is always a good idea to see your GP or specialist to get a diagnosis. It could be something minor like a sprained muscle, or it could be a referred pain which may mean other more serious things are going on. It is always best to get it checked out.”

Types of back pain

Broadly speaking, Professor Brierley states there are five different types of back pain, each stemming back to a different cause. These causes are:

  • Congenital problems (something that is present from birth) such as spina bifida, which occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly in the mother’s womb, and scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine which occurs most often during the growth spurt just before puberty.
  • Injury related, such as tearing a muscle while playing sport, or receiving some sort of trauma.
  • Age and use related, such as arthritis or disc degeneration. Quite often these conditions occur in people aged over 50, but it also depends on how often the person is doing a particular activity. For example, if someone is bending down in a repetitive exercise or task then these conditions can develop earlier.
  • Nerve/spine conditions and damage including sciatica, osteoporosis, or infection of the spine.
  • Referred pain which occurs when the back hurts, but the cause of the pain may be centred somewhere else, such as in cases of fibromyalgia, endometriosis, or irritable bowel syndrome.

How is back pain treated?

“Treatment for back pain is considered on a case by case basis,” advises Professor Brierly. “Treatments for acute back pain can range from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory tablets and creams as well as ice or heat packs and gentle stretching.”

Chronic pain can be more difficult to treat.

“Treatment for chronic pain is dependent on accurate diagnosis of the cause,” Professor Brierley states. “Thankfully there have been advances in non-invasive diagnostic techniques that we can use for back pain (such as CT scans and bone scans) so we can get a better understanding of what is going on.”

Improving your workstation ergonomics

With many people working from home more often because of COVID-19 social distancing recommendations, Professor Brierley recommends that it’s important to have your work area set up properly.

“At the office, our employers do a pretty good job of ensuring good ergonomic practices are in place. For example, you may have a large monitor and be using a sitting/standing desk. But many people haven’t moved these office essentials to their homes. Instead, they may be sitting on the couch with their laptop or hunched over the coffee table. If you are doing that for 8 hours a day then back and muscle pain can become a real problem.”

Try these tips to improve your posture and easy stretches that you can perform at your work station throughout the day.

When should I see the GP about my back pain?

As Professor Brierley mentioned earlier, any pain we feel in our bodies is a sign that something is wrong.

“It is always a good idea to see you GP or specialist if you are feeling pain,” Professor Brierley says. “The sooner we can see a patient, the better chance we have of helping them overcome the pain or providing them with effective relief for the symptoms – particularly in the case of chronic pain. In all cases, if the pain is related to something serious, then the earlier we can detect something the better chance there is for positive long-term health outcomes.”

Health Partners members receive:

Up to 100% back on their physio visit with a participating provider on eligible Extras cover. Find your nearest Health Partners Physio Provider.

20% off non-prescription pain related products at 50+ participating pharmacies in SA.

Posted: Dec 14 2020


The information contained here is of a general nature and does not take into account your personal medical situation. The information is not a substitute for independent professional medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or used for therapeutic purposes. Should you require specific medical information, please seek advice from your healthcare practitioner. Health Partners does not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information provided. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them.

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