Back pain is a common problem that affects most people at some point in their life.
It may be triggered by bad posture while sitting or standing, bending awkwardly, or lifting incorrectly. It's not generally caused by a serious condition.
Find out more about the causes of back pain.
In most cases back pain will improve in a few weeks or months, although some people experience long-term pain or pain that keeps coming back.
Types of back pain
Backache is most common in the lower back (lumbago), although it can be felt anywhere along your spine, from your neck down to your hips.
Read information on neck pain and shoulder pain, which are covered separately.
Sometimes back pain can be caused by an injury or disease, such as:
- a slipped disc – when one of the discs in the spine is damaged and presses on the nerves
- sciatica – irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve, which causes pain, numbness and tingling that travels down one leg
- whiplash – neck injury caused by a sudden impact
- frozen shoulder – inflammation around the shoulder that causes pain and stiffness
- ankylosing spondylitis – a long-term condition that causes pain and stiffness where the spine meets the pelvis
The rest of this information will focus on back pain that doesn't have an obvious cause. Doctors call this non-specific back pain.
What to do
Most cases of back pain get better on their own and you may not need to see a doctor.
If you've only had back pain for a few days or weeks, the following advice may help relieve your symptoms and speed up your recovery:
- remain as active as possible and try to continue with your daily activities
- take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen if you feel you need to
- use hot or cold compression packs – you can buy these from your local pharmacy, or a bag of frozen vegetables and a hot water bottle will work just as well
Although it can be difficult to be cheerful or optimistic if you are in pain, it's important to stay positive as this can help you recover faster.
Read more about treatments for short-term back pain.
Treatments for long-term back pain
If you're worried about your back or your pain hasn't improved by around six weeks, it's a good idea to visit your GP, who can advise you about the treatments available.
Some people choose to see a therapist for manual therapy or acupuncture without seeing their GP first. If you want to do this, you will usually need to pay for private treatment, which is likely to cost around £30-50 for each appointment.
Spinal surgery is usually only recommended when all else has failed.
Read more about treating long-term back pain.
Preventing back pain
How you sit, stand, lie and lift can all affect the health of your back. Try to avoid placing too much pressure on your back and ensure it's 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.
See the back pain guide for advice about how to sit, stand and lift correctly to avoid backache, or read more about preventing back pain.
Signs of a serious problem
You should seek urgent medical help if you have back pain and:
- a high temperature (fever)
- unexplained weight loss
- a swelling or a deformity in your back
- it's constant and doesn't ease after lying down
- pain in your chest
- loss of bladder or bowel control
- an inability to pass urine
- numbness around your genitals, buttocks or back passage
- it's worse at night
- it started after an accident, such as after a car accident
These problems could be a sign of something more serious and need to be assessed as soon as possible.
Read more about how back pain is diagnosed.
Page last reviewed: 03/02/2015
Next review due: 03/02/2017