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Back pain: Seven things you need to know about how to prevent and manage your creaks and aches

Your teeth are clenched, your face is etched with pain and it's impossible to carry out your normal daily activities. You have back pain and you're not even sure what caused it. Close to 80 per cent of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives, and it's one of the most common reasons we end up at the doctor. Yet there are many things about back pain that are poorly understood. Here are some facts about back pain that will probably surprise you.

1. Back pain is not always caused by injury

Up to 50 per cent of us develop back pain without an injury.

Yes, stress to the back and accidents can result in soft-tissue injuries like strains and tears, as well as fractures and disc problems. And in the workplace, one in five serious compensation claims relate to an injury to the back.

But less obvious causes are when the spine's structures become sensitised due to other factors such as stress, low mood, anxiety and lack of sleep.

Getting enough sleep, regular exercise and taking steps to reduce and manage stress can help reduce the risk of back pain (and a host of other health problems too).

2. Back pain usually gets better by itself

The notion you might never recover and be pain-free again is understandably frightening.

But fortunately, almost all cases of acute back pain (back pain that comes on suddenly) will recover fully by themselves in weeks or months, even if your pain was severe to start with, musculoskeletal expert and back pain researcher Dr Chris Maher says.

You should see a doctor if:

  • The pain radiates down your leg

  • You have numbness, pins and needles or muscle weakness

  • It leads to abnormal bladder or bowel symptoms, is associated with unexplained weight changes, loss of appetite, fever or feeling unwell

  • You have chronic illness such as osteoporosis

  • You experience severe pain that doesn't improve within a week

3. Paracetamol is unlikely to help

For years, guidelines around the world have advised GPs to tell patients with back pain they should take simple paracetamol for pain relief.

But when this idea was put to the test for the first time in a large study, the results showed paracetamol actually didn't seem to help. It didn't speed time to recovery; it didn't improve pain; and it didn't improve the range of activities people could do.