By Rosaria Toohey, Lead Physiotherapist, The Therapy Centre, Lynwood Village, Ben
Back pain is the biggest cause of disability in the UK, with lower back pain alone accounting for a tenth of cases. Caring for your back is incredibly important for overall wellbeing, but there are some myths to watch out for.
Please bear in mind what we are providing here is general advice as it’s not possible to give absolute clear guidelines without fully assessing someone. However, here are some of the common myths we are told and our ‘myth busting’ top tips that can be useful for relieving your pain…
Myth: “Use heat to relieve back pain”
Actually, one of the first and best things you can do if you hurt your back is put an ice pack on the lower back area as soon as you can. Using a gel pack that you can buy from a pharmacist or online is perfectly adequate. I’m not a fan of frozen peas but would recommend everyone has a gel ice pack in their freezer.
Do think about what happens on a football field if someone hurts their back; the medics run on with ice, never with heat. And they apply ice as soon as possible. When you hurt your back there is acute injury and inflammation happening inside, which we often can’t even see. Putting heat on any acute injury can actually exacerbate the damage and symptoms. This applies to sore backs as well.
A very cold gel ice pack placed in a pillow case and placed on the lumbar spine while you lie on your tummy for 10 minutes 3-4 times per day, will, in almost all cases, ease your symptoms. With only one piece of the material between your skin and the ice pack will make your back cold enough to reduce the inflammation and numb your back. Back numbing is very good for eradicating pain memory and takes the “anger” out of inflammation.
Be careful to avoid ice burns, so only do 10 minutes at a time and always with a pillow case. If you can’t lie on your tummy when applying the ice pack to your back, just place the ice pack on the bed and roll onto it, to get the effect of the ice pack on the painful area of your back.
Myth: “Stay still”
Generally, movement helps to relieve back pain, as long as a particular movement doesn’t make the pain worse.
Knee rolling is very useful as a first aid exercise for back pain, lying on your back with your knees bent up and resting on the bed, roll your knees gently from side to side. Don’t go into any painful range of movement. If rolling to one side hurts, just avoid that direction and go away from the pain to the other side. Eventually you’ll be able to nudge into the painful range of movement as the problem resolves.
Back extension also helps to relieve back pain most of the time. This is because we most commonly injure our back with flexion or bending activities. Do back extension by lying on your tummy on the bed, and if this is comfortable then try to come up onto your elbows so your back goes into a bit of extension. Stay in the pain free range of movement while doing back extension as well. As the pain resolves you can push up a bit higher into extension. Try extending your back in standing, with your hands on the back of a chair.
Walking is particularly good for back pain, as long as this is comfortable. Walking generally helps to increase the blood circulation and this can wash away toxins that accumulate in tight, tense muscles that go into spasm when we hurt our back. Just don’t try and walk 10 miles straight away! Start with a short distance and gradually increase the distance, avoiding any back flare up.
Myth: “Avoid using weights”
Weight training is fine to continue with if your back flares up, but avoid anything that makes your back painful. Concentrate on exercises in the gym that are pain free. You should be pain-free for 24 hours after any healthy exercise. If you’re exercising in the gym and pain comes on after you leave, particularly in a joint, you could well be injuring something and you need to rethink what you are doing. Joints in particular should feel better after exercise.
Myth: “Get a scan”
Only 2% of scan results accurately indicate what is wrong with your back. Most people in their 40s and 50s will have a bulging disc, or a bit of arthritis. This is fairly normal for most middle aged individuals. X-rays and scans don’t show everything. Physiotherapists treat, thinking of the patient and their signs and symptoms. Once you start treatment you should gradually begin to feel better. Scans are important if your symptoms don’t improve or get worse.
Myth: “Sitting jobs are better for your back than manual work”
Sitting is the new smoking! We are a sitting society. Sitting is a bigger problem than lifting. If you have a sedentary job, make sure you get up and at least every hour and do some office stretches. Statistically, people who extend their backs regularly at least daily or a few times a day, avoid back problems. So don’t forget you can do exercise in the office!
Try to build 1 hour of exercise into your daily routine. This could be walking at lunch time or the evening, walk the stairs a few times a day, go for a swim, join an exercise or dance class. Remember any exercise you do is like banking money; you’re investing in your future.
Myth: “Don’t lie on your stomach”
Lying on your stomach when your back is bad is NOT bad for your back. Prone lying helps back pain generally by encouraging the any disc prolapse to slide back into the correct place.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, it’s essential that you go straight to an accident and emergency department to be seen by a doctor:
- Sciatica or weakness in both legs
- Loss or change of sensation in the “saddle”, genital area
- Problems with passing urine e.g. frequency, or loss of control
- Loss of bowel control.
Ben is here to provide support for life to those who work in the UK’s automotive industry and their families. You can ring our free, confidential helpline on 08081 311 333 or use our online chat.
About the editor
Rosaria Toohey, Lead Physiotherapist at Lynwood Village, heads up a team of 3 Physiotherapists and 4 Physiotherapy Assistants. Originally qualified from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Rosaria has worked for Addenbrooke’s Hospital and Bupa in Cambridgeshire, before joining Ben.
She combines her knowledge of exercise and stretching, with acupuncture, aquatic therapy, massage and soft tissue techniques, laser and ultrasound electrotherapy.