Our increasingly sedentary lives are leading to an epidemic of back pain. Dr. Lesley Hickin and Dr Chris Brown explore the causes, prevention and treatment.
Nearly half the adult population in the UK gets back pain lasting at least 24 hours at some time every year. 90% of us are going to have a disabling episode of back pain at some point in our lives. About five million people consult their GP about back pain every year, amounting to around 14 million GP consultations in total. In 1998 the direct health care costs of back pain in the UK were estimated at #1,632 million, of which about #480 million was direct NHS cost, with other costs arising from private treatments such as osteopathy, chiropractic, physiotherapy, and private prescriptions.
What causes back pain?
A highly complicated nervous system governs the function of the back. The spine is made up of 33 small bones (vertebrae) with shock-absorbing discs between them. Muscles and ligaments support this structure, keeping us upright and able to move, walk, run and jump freely.
When the back is damaged it is usually the low back that is most vulnerable to injury. Low back pain is characterised by a number of symptoms, which include pain, muscle tension and spasm or stiffness and is found at any site between the shoulder blades and the folds of the buttocks, with or without spread to the legs (sciatica). Fewer than one in ten people with back pain have a serious condition, and fewer than one in 100 need surgery. Many people worry that they have a slipped disc, which is when one of the discs gets squeezed out between the vertebrae and presses on the spinal cord. The nerves to the legs, bowel and bladder can be affected in these cases. Diseases of the spine such as tumours are very rare causes of back pain.