Back Pain – how Physiotherapy can help

Date: 09/05/2009

Whether back pain rules your life or you get an occasional twinge, this summary will help you understand how physiotherapy can help. Research shows that in most cases it is best to keep as normally active as possible.

What is back pain?

Almost everyone experiences back pain at some point in their life. The pain may occur suddenly and be gone in a couple of days, or it may last for weeks or even longer. Back pain usually gets better, but often recurs. The pain may be limited to the back itself, or it may spread to the groin, buttock, leg or foot on one or both sides. It may also cause pins and needles, numbness or burning sensations in one or both legs or feet.

What causes the problem?

Back pain can be the result of a range of conditions that affect muscles, tendons, ligaments, discs, nerves or other soft tissues or joints. Most back pain does not have one simple cause, but may be due to a range of factors, such as poor posture, repetitive activity and bad habits. Pain does not necessarily mean there is a serious problem.

How can physiotherapy help?

Physiotherapists are highly skilled at supporting people with back pain. The physiotherapist may offer manual therapy and will explain how you can manage the pain, contribute to your own recovery and prevent the problem from recurring. Research clearly shows that physical activity and exercise help, and a physiotherapist can provide an exercise programme based on your health, ability and fitness levels.

What will happen when I see a physiotherapist?

The physiotherapist will assess how your back is working and affecting your life, and the level of fitness you need for your usual activities. They will ask lots of questions, watch your movements and touch your back. They will also explain how to manage the pain, contribute to your own recovery and prevent the problem recurring. Your consultation is likely to include:

  • advice about exercises or physical activities that will help
  • posture and lifestyle advice and activities to avoid.

It may also include:

  • manual therapy, such as manipulation and massage for short-term pain relief
  • applying heat or cold to the affected area
  • acupuncture.

Meanwhile, how can I help myself? Contrary to popular belief, for most types of back pain rest does not help recovery. Tips include:

  • Keep as active as possible.
  • Take simple pain relief and any prescriptions regularly. Follow the instructions on the packet, or ask your pharmacist.
  • Get a copy of the Back Book (see ‘more information’ section below)

Most cases will settle in a few days. If you have not returned to your normal activities within six weeks, seek help. Note: These symptoms are very rare, but if you have severe pain that gets worse over several weeks, or if you are unwell with back pain or have had a recent serious fall or accident, go to the GP. See the GP straight away if you have:

  • difficulty passing or controlling urine
  • numbness around the back passage or genitals
  • numbness, pins and needles or weakness in both legs at the same time
  • unsteadiness on your feet.

Where can I get more information?

Back Book By Martin Roland et al, published by the Royal College of General Practitioners and the NHS Executive (2002). A classic source, which offers advice and exercises to tackle back pain.

Backcare – Independent national charity that helps people manage and prevent back pain. Produces a range of information and runs a helpline. Tel: 0845 130 2704 /

Working Backs Scotland Public health campaign run by the Health Education Board for Scotland and the Health and Safety Executive. Tel: 0800 019 2211 /  www.workingbacksscotland/

Supplied by Mr R J D’Souza BPhil MCSP Clinical Specialist Physiotherapist. Telephone: 01872 241882 Reference: Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

The content on this page is provided for general information purposes only and is not meant to replace a physiotherapy or medical consultation.

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