One of the most common complaints seen by osteopaths is back pain. Over 80% of New Zealanders will suffer from back pain in their lifetime. The most common area of back pain is the lumbar spine. This is located in the arch in your lower back, above your buttock region. Some of the symptoms you may experience include: dull pain, stiffness, sharp pain, a cramping sensation, muscle spasm and difficulty moving. The pain can be localised or spread to surrounding areas. If you have any of the following symptoms please see a medical practitioner urgently: numbness in the groin, loss of bowel or bladder function and control, constant pain that keeps you awake at night, pins and needles in both legs or pain that is increasing in intensity.
There are many causes of lower back pain, some causes include: muscle strains, ligament sprains, disc injuries, joint irritation and spinal nerve compression. Other causes can include: osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, fracture and spondylolithesis.
Common back pain myths
My back is ‘out’ or ‘out of place’ and needs to be ‘put back in place’
It is very rare that the lumbar spine is truly ‘out of place’. As an osteopath, a spinal segment that is ‘out of place’ is dislocated and would be compressing the spinal cord. Thankfully, this is not common. More commonly this myth refers to the lumbar spine not moving adequately and the surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments being tight and painful. Other areas of the body may also become sore to compensate the lower back.
Bed rest will help my back pain
ACC’s current recommendations for back pain is to stay active. Some small periods of rest may be beneficial but prolonged bed rest can actually do more harm than good. By staying active, with gentle movement, you are aiding the removal of any inflammation and helping prevent your lower back from stiffening up.
I must avoid all activities that cause back pain
Your health professional will advise you on what activities to avoid depending on your injury. There is also ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’ that is causing harm and further damage. Some activities may actually be beneficial. In some cases, slight altering an activity means you can still do the activity without, or minimal pain.
Exercise is bad for back pain
Exercise and movement is actually good for back pain and can help prevent it. Always consult your health professional first and get advice on what exercise is suitable for you. Your health professional can also advise you on the frequency and intensity of exercise that is appropriate for you.
Ways to self manage back pain
- Stay active
- Small periods of rest
- Heat or ice
- Sleeping in a good, supportive bed and pillows
- Avoid prolonged bed rest
- Seek treatment — pain generally resolves faster when treated earlier. This helps pain remaining localised and not spread to surrounding areas.
Osteopaths can help back pain by reducing pain and improving the function of the lower back, aiding its recovery. Treatment is aimed at identifying the cause, rather than just treating the symptoms. Techniques used during treatment include; soft tissue (massage), joint manipulation ‘cracking the joints’ and articulation (movement). Tailored advice is given to clients on any specific exercises or stretches that will help, any lifestyle changes that are required and ways to help manage the pain.
Osteopaths are ACC registered.
Words: Sarah Boughtwood, Osteopath Takapuna