Introduction 

Back pain is a common problem that affects most people at some point in their life. It usually feels like an ache, tension or stiffness in your back.

The pain can be triggered by bad posture while sitting or standing, bending awkwardly, or lifting incorrectly. 

Back pain is not generally caused by a serious condition and, in most cases, it gets better within 12 weeks. It can usually be successfully treated by taking painkillers and keeping mobile.

Find out more about what can cause back pain.

Types of back pain

Backache is most common in the lower back, although it can be felt anywhere along your spine, from your neck down to your hips. You can find information on the specific types of back pain on the following pages:

Read more about the symptoms of back pain.

Treating back pain

If you have back pain, you should try to remain as active as possible and continue with your daily activities. In the past, doctors recommended rest for back pain, but most experts now agree that being inactive for long periods is bad for your back. Moderate activity, such as walking or doing everyday tasks, will help your recovery. 

You can take painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, if you feel the need to. Hot or cold compression packs may also help reduce the pain. You can buy compression packs from your local pharmacy, or a bag of frozen vegetables and a hot water bottle will work just as well. Find your nearest pharmacy.

Your state of mind can also play an important role. Although it can be difficult to be cheerful if you are in pain, research has shown that people who remain positive tend to recover quicker than those who get depressed.

Some people choose to have manual therapy, such as physiotherapychiropractic or osteopathy, as soon as the pain starts. Private appointments cost around £40.

For back pain that lasts more than six weeks (which doctors describe as chronic), treatment typically involves a combination of painkillers and either acupuncture, exercise classes or manual therapy. 

Spinal surgery is usually only considered when all else has failed.

Read more about treating back pain.

Backache in pregnancy

It's quite common to get backache in pregnancy. If you're pregnant, you may not want to take painkillers, but there are other ways of easing the discomfort.

Read more about back pain in pregnancy

When to see your GP

Most cases of back pain get better on their own and you do not need to see a doctor.

However, you should visit your GP if you are worried about your back or you are finding it difficult to cope with the pain.

Read more about how back pain is diagnosed.

You should seek immediate medical help if your back pain is accompanied by:

  • fever of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above
  • unexplained weight loss
  • swelling in the back
  • constant back pain that doesn't ease after lying down
  • pain in your chest or high up in your back
  • pain down your legs and below the knees
  • loss of bladder or bowel control
  • inability to pass urine 
  • numbness around your genitals, buttocks or back passage 
  • pain that is worse at night 

These are known as 'red flag symptoms' and could be a sign of something more serious.

Preventing back pain

How you sit, stand, lie and lift can all affect the health of your back. See the back pain guide for how to sit, stand and lift correctly to avoid backache.

Try to avoid placing too much pressure on your back and ensure your back is strong and supple. Regular exercise, such as walking and swimming, is an excellent way of preventing back pain. Activities such as yoga or pilates can improve your flexibility and strengthen your back muscles.

Find out more about:

Back pain guide

Back pain guide

Explore this guide for information about different types of back pain, ways of preventing it and advice on treatment

Page last reviewed: 21/02/2013

Next review due: 21/02/2015