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Searches related to back pain on Google have soared during the Covid-19 pandemic, new data reveals, with physiotherapists suggesting much of the rise is linked to inactivity and stress.
Data analysed by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) shows searches for ‘back pain relief’ and ‘back pain exercises’ shot up by a third during April and May.
The rise coincided with a reduction in requests for GP appointments, leading the CSP to warn that there may be a surge in demand of NHS services in the coming months.
What to do about your back pain
If you’re struggling with back pain right now, you might think lying down and doing nothing is the key to sorting it out, but the opposite is true.
Laura Finucane, a consultant physiotherapist specialising in spinal conditions, wants people to know that “motion is lotion” when it comes to recovery from acute back pain, which is where you have it for up to six weeks.
Remaining active can “turn down” the intensity of the pain you’re feeling, while staying still reinforces the thought process that movement is bad, which can “turn up” the intensity of pain, says Finucane, who is a member of CSP.
This advice is echoed by the NHS, too: “One of the most important things you can do is to keep moving and continue with your normal activities as much as possible.”
It’s worth nothing, though, that if the pain gets worse or lasts longer than six weeks – which would be deemed chronic back pain – you should check in with a doctor.
What causes acute back pain?
Back pain is the leading single cause of disability in the UK. There are many reasons why a person might suffer with acute back pain, but it’s usually because of a problem with their ligaments, tendons or muscles in the back.
Factors such as poor sleep, being overweight, not getting enough physical activity and social issues like stress at home or work can make the pain worse, says Finucane.
Posture can also play a part. As we become more sedentary in our lives, people need to remember that “your next posture is your best posture”, she says – which basically means mixing up your posture throughout the day is important for your back. Don’t sit for long periods of time, she advises, as “our bodies love variety and movement”. Instead, try “active sitting”, where you alternate between standing up and sitting down throughout the working day.
How is acute back pain treated?
It used to be thought that bed-rest would help people recover from a bad back, but as the NHS states, “it’s now known that people who remain active are likely to recover more quickly”.
Therefore, treatments for acute back pain revolve around remaining active and avoiding bed-rest, especially in the early stages. “Patients need to know that they are safe to move and it is not dangerous or damaging, and that keeping active helps to encourage recovery,” says Finucane.
Consider taking painkillers, like ibuprofen, if the pain is stopping you from carrying on as normal, NHS Choices advises. You might also want to try hot and cold packs.
If nothing is relieving the pain in the short-term, you might be inclined to ask for an MRI scan – but Finucane says this isn’t always necessary, and can sometimes increase stress, as well as the amount of pain you’re in, because your muscles may become more tense.
The scans can flag up things that sound worrying but are not relevant to the back pain, she says. “Everyone, as they get older, will have the equivalent of grey hairs on an MRI scan, it’s part of the normal ageing process, so we like to ‘treat the man not the scan’.”
Finucane adds that some patients might respond to hands-on treatment such as mobilisation of the spine – a physiotherapy technique – but this should not be done in isolation, she says, and should be part of a package of care that is agreed by both a patient and a medical professional.
Most back pain gets better without seeking help, the NHS states, but if your symptoms get worse or don’t improve after 6-8 weeks, you should seek help from a specialist.
The CSP is calling for GPs to accelerate NHS plans for patients to be able to see a ‘First Contact Physiotherapist’ in their surgeries. This would mean patients have direct access to highly skilled specialists without the need for a referral.