Following on from my previous editorials on ergonomics and exercise when working from home, this month we are going to look at one of the most common injuries resulting from lack of physical activity and poor working posture: back pain.
Millions of us are less physically active than we were before Covid-19 struck, and many more are spending countless days looking at our screens without leaving the house. It has been estimated that 80% of people working from home have experienced some back, neck or shoulder pain since the first lockdown, so you are not alone!
There may be a specific cause for your back pain; if you also experience leg pain, tingling or numbness this can be caused by nerve irritation or compression in the back, however in most cases it is not actually possible to identify the exact cause of your pain. It may be due to a combination of many different physical and psychological factors including a simple strain, over protecting the back, low mood or stress (because of your back pain or due to other psychological or social issues), poor sleep quality, lack of physical activity; the list could go on! It is however vital that you realise that all pain is 100% real regardless of the cause; you are not imagining it even if factors like stress or low mood are involved. It is also important you know that back pain is not usually caused by a serious problem, any structural damage to the spine is rare and most back pain (98% according to the research) normally gets better within a few weeks.
Although it can be painful and upsetting, research shows that most back pain can be successfully treated with a combination of remaining as active as the pain allows, simple painkillers if needed, and advice from a healthcare professional. Exercise has been shown to be the most effective treatment for back pain. It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do, as long as it keeps you active*.
Choose something that you like to do it, and keep it going even when your pain has resolved to protect your back in the longer term too.
New research is constantly emerging giving us some extremely interesting insights into previously held beliefs. Bed rest is NOT recommended for example, and will actually make your back pain worse, whereas 7.5–8 hours of good quality sleep helps to tackle the pain. You may find it reassuring to know that your spine is a strong and stable structure and is not easily damaged. Scans are rarely required; these usually show normal changes to your healthy spine, however seeing these changes can cause stress and anxiety making you overprotect you back and avoid the activities you need to be doing to make it better! A scan is only needed if your GP or healthcare professional send you for one.
If simple painkillers and staying active are not working after 6–8 weeks, then it may be time to seek advice from your GP or Physiotherapist.
10 things you need to know about your back:
- Your back is stronger than you may think.
- Avoid bedrest, stay in work and gradually resume normal activities.
- You should not fear bending or lifting.
- Exercise and activity reduce and prevent back pain.
- Painkillers will not speed up your recovery.
- You rarely need a scan and it can do more harm than good.
- Surgery is rarely needed.
- Get good quality sleep.
- You can have back pain without any damage or injury.
- If it doesn’t clear up, seek help but don’t worry.
Symptoms to be aware of:
These symptoms are very rare but you should contact a doctor immediately if you experience any of them:
- Difficulty passing urine or having the sensation to pass water that is not there.
- Numbness/tingling in your genitals or buttocks area.
- Loss of bladder or bowel control.
- Impaired sexual function, such as loss of sensation during intercourse.
- Loss of power in your legs.
- Feeling unwell with your back pain, such as a fever or significant sweating that wakes you from sleep.
*Please ensure you consult your GP before starting any new form of exercise*
Joanne Pritchard BSc (Hons), MSc, MCSP, HCPC registered Principal Physiotherapist and Director Physio Pilates Retford.
Working from home: four in five develop musculoskeletal pain - Personnel Today
Back pain | The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (www.csp.org.uk)