Back pain is so common – affecting 9 out of 10 people - that chances are, you’ve experienced it at some stage in your life. For some people, it can be a regular occurrence.
Back pain can be distressing and interfere with your life and ability to work. And if you’ve started working from home, your back can suffer if you’re more stressed, losing sleep or you don’t get as much physical exercise as you used to.
Contrary to popular belief, lower back pain is often linked to being run down, unwell, inactive, stressed, doing unaccustomed activity or not sleeping well; and not by damaged tissue,” says Dr JP Caneiro, a specialist physiotherapist and research fellow at Curtin University in Perth.
The good news is that back pain is rarely dangerous, and it doesn’t mean you’ve damaged something. Most episodes of lower back pain also improve in time, Dr Caneiro says.
Understanding and avoiding triggers of back pain can also help.
Sitting or standing for too long
We all know that inactivity is bad for you. Being inactive and sitting or standing for hours for long periods can make your back sensitive and sore, Dr Caneiro says.
“Sedentary behaviour is not good for our health. Too much of either sitting or standing can be detrimental,” he says. “The key is to find a balance and vary between the two if possible.”
For instance, if you work at a desk, try to get up and walk around at frequent intervals – whether that’s in the office or if you’re working at home.
When you’re not working, make sure you keep up some physical activity such as walking or cycling to keep your body moving.
It’s easy to fall out of the habit of exercising regularly. Juggling work demands, study or family responsibilities can gradually reduce our level of exercise.
And now, with current COVID-19 restrictions, our normal exercise routine – such as a regular exercise class or going to the gym - might be further restricted.
If you’ve had a long break from exercise but you want to start exercising again – even from home, start slowly, Dr Caneiro advises.
“If you haven’t exercised in a while, it’s important to build up gradually. For some, starting this process under supervision until you build your confidence can be helpful,” he says.
It’s best to have the guidance of a physiotherapist, but if you’re unable to see one in person, look for a physio who can guide your progress via a telehealth consultation.
How to avoid and manage back pain
Look after your health
The key to maintaining a healthy and pain-free back is to focus on your overall health and wellbeing, Dr Caneiro says.
“When the interplay of these factors goes out of sync, the structures of the back can become sensitised and sore.”
“Although an episode of lower back pain can be scary, it’s important to try to stay as mobile and active as possible,” Dr Caneiro says.
Regular exercise can help prevent lower back pain, Dr Caneiro says. Don’t try to “guard” your back by keeping it stiff. Rather, try to relax your back muscles when they’re not needed.
“Engaging in relaxed movement that builds confidence and safety in the body is better than guarding and protecting the back.”
“To keep the spine healthy, engage in movement and exercise in a graduated manner.”
If you have a pain flare-up, it’s unlikely to be caused by tissue damage. Stay calm, relaxed and keep moving, rather than think of it as an injury and trying to “protect” your back.
In fact, being scared of pain and avoiding activity can make your back pain worse, Dr Caneiro says.
Do gentle exercise
Gentle exercise such as yoga, pilates and swimming can help your back to stay healthy. If you’re staying at home due to COVID-19, look for exercises you can do at home, such as bodyweight exercises or gentle stretches.
No matter what kind of exercise you do, regular exercise is beneficial for your back.
If you haven’t exercised for a while, it’s normal to feel some pain when you start to move, and the pain usually settles down once you become more active, Dr Caneiro says.
If you have acute back pain that you’ve never had before, you can use heat to relax tense muscles and provide some relief.
“In acute episodes, the back muscles tend to tense up. While using heat is helpful to relax them, relaxed movement is best,” Dr Caneiro says.
See a physio
If you need help managing back pain, book an appointment with a physiotherapist for guidance and advice.
If you can’t see a physiot in person, try to get an appointment via a video consultation. Many allied health professionals who have closed their clinics due to COVID-19 are still providing consultations via telehealth methods.
“To manage back pain, it’s important to develop a good understanding about the condition, engage in physical and social activities, maintain good sleep habits and a healthy body weight, as well as manage your stress levels.” Dr Caneiro says.