Back pain - Overview

Back pain is very common and usually improves within a few weeks or months.

Pain in the lower back (lumbago) is very common. But it can be felt anywhere along the spine, from the neck down to the hips.

In most cases the pain is not caused by anything serious and will usually get better over time.

There are things you can do to help relieve back pain. But sometimes the pain can last a long time or keep coming back.

How to relieve back pain

Staying active

Stay as active as possible and try to continue your daily activities. This is one of the most important things you can do. Resting for long periods is likely to make the pain worse.

Exercising

Try exercises and stretches for back pain. Other activities such as walking, swimming, yoga and pilates may also be helpful.

Medicine

Take anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen. Ask your GP or pharmacist if the medicine is safe for you to take.

Hot or cold packs

Use hot or cold compression packs for short-term relief. Use ice for sudden, severe injuries or pain, along with inflammation and swelling. Use heat for muscle pain or stiffness.

You can buy hot and cold packs at most pharmacies.

Staying Positive

It can be difficult, but it helps if you stay optimistic and recognise that your pain should get better. People who manage to stay positive despite their pain often recover quicker.

When to see your GP

Back pain usually gets better on its own within a few weeks or months. You may not need to see a GP.

Non-urgent advice: Talk to your GP if:

  • the pain does not start to improve within a few weeks
  • the pain stops you doing your day-to-day activities
  • the pain is very severe or gets worse over time
  • you're worried about the pain or struggling to cope

Your GP will ask about your symptoms, examine your back and discuss possible treatments.

They may refer you to a specialist doctor or a physiotherapist for further help.

Treatments for back pain from a specialist

A GP, specialist or physiotherapist may recommend extra treatments if they don't think your pain will improve with self-help measures alone.

Surgery is generally only used where back pain is caused by a specific medical condition.

Group exercise classes

This is where you're taught exercises to strengthen your muscles and improve your posture.

Manual therapy treatments

These treatments can include manipulating the spine and massage. They are usually done by a physiotherapist, chiropractor or osteopath.

Some people choose to see a therapist for manual therapy without seeing a GP first. If you want to do this, you'll usually need to pay for private treatment.

Psychological support

Supports such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a part of treatment if you're struggling to cope with pain.

Causes of back pain

It's often not possible to identify the cause of back pain. Doctors call this non-specific back pain.

Sometimes the pain may be from an injury such as a sprain or strain. But often it happens for no reason. It's very rarely caused by anything serious.

Sometimes back pain can be caused by a medical condition such as:

  • a slipped (prolapsed) disc – where a disc of cartilage in the spine presses on a nearby nerve
  • sciatica – irritation of the nerve that runs from the pelvis to the feet

These can cause other symptoms, such as numbness, weakness or a tingling sensation. They're treated differently from non-specific back pain.

Preventing back pain

It's difficult to prevent back pain, but you can help reduce your risk by:

  • doing regular back exercises and stretches – your GP or physiotherapist may be able to advise you about exercises to try
  • staying active – doing regular exercise can help keep your back strong, adults should do at least 150 minutes of exercise a week
  • avoiding sitting for long periods
  • taking care when lifting
  • checking your posture when sitting, using computers or tablets and watching television
  • making sure the mattress on your bed supports you properly
  • losing weight – being overweight can increase your risk of developing back pain

Urgent advice: You should contact your GP immediately if you have back pain and:

  • numbness or tingling around your genitals or buttocks
  • difficulty peeing
  • loss of bladder or bowel control – peeing or pooing yourself
  • chest pain
  • a high temperature
  • unintentional weight loss
  • a swelling or a deformity in your back
  • it does not improve after resting or is worse at night
  • it started after a serious accident, such as after a car accident
  • the pain is so bad you're having problems sleeping
  • pain is made worse when sneezing, coughing or pooing
  • the pain is coming from the top of your back, between your shoulders, rather than your lower back

These problems could be a sign of something more serious and need to be checked urgently.


Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.

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