Q: How widespread is back pain?
A: Back pain is the second highest cause for seeking medical advice in the UK, falling just behind the common cold. GPs receive some 7 million visits from sufferers each year, with 80% of back problems recurring. What’s more, the NHS spends more than £2 billion every year on back-pain-related costs including GP consultations, hospital fees and physical therapy. And in the private healthcare sector, a further £5.5 million is spent annually trying to treat this condition. Factor in the five million working days lost each year, and the charity BackCare estimates that back pain costs the UK around £5 billion every year.
Q: What’s the main cause of back problems?
A: The leading cause is sedentary living. In the Western and developed world, sedentary life is on the increase, particularly in the workplace. We spend long periods of time sitting at desks and computers, driving vehicles, flying and generally being less active. This has contributed to the dramatic increase in back pain in recent times. The human spine is a complex piece of engineering which is designed to be active. Prolonged sitting places our spinal discs under strain. The discs are like shock absorbers between our vertebrae and have a ‘jelly-like’ substance inside them. A slumped sitting posture, which reverses the natural curve of the lower back, can increase disc pressure by as much as 190%. This gradually weakens the tough spinal ligaments and outer layer of the disc, and subsequently can lead to the development of disc bulging (also known as a ‘slipped disc’).
Q: What about decreasing fitness levels?
A: If you live an inactive life with a sedentary job, it goes without saying that your overall body function will suffer. For example, in a typical day an average person may spend 30 minutes walking to and from public transport to their workplace and home again (and even less if they drive to work). The rest of the day, for the majority of people, will be spent inactive sitting at a desk. This may easily mean seven-to-ten hours of very little movement. Mechanically, you will develop generally less flexible muscles and poor muscle tone, alongside increased joint stiffness. The spinal muscles will not only shorten and tighten, but also waste, which is known as muscle atrophy. The result of this is less ability to control and maintain body position, co-ordinate movements and maintain the natural ‘S’ shape of the spine. All these factors increase the likelihood of injury to your spine.
Q: Does our posture play a big role?
A: The way you hold your body is probably the most important factor in determining the health of your back. Poor posture will gradually weaken your back and result in pain. Good posture is achieved by maintaining the S shape of the spine, both in a sitting or standing position [see exercises below to help you achieve this.] When the spine is in the S-shaped position, the centre of gravity is located in the mid-line or neutral location. In other words, the weight of your body is distributed equally along the length of the spine. In this position, the muscles in the front and back of the body are well toned, but relaxed. A poor slumped or ‘C’ shaped posture (particularly in sitting), will weaken the spinal discs, stretch ligaments and joints, tighten muscles and eventually cause pain.
Q: Does any section of society appear to suffer more?
A: The overweight and obese are more likely to suffer with joint pain. Excess body weight not only leads to an increase in loading of many of the body’s joints – which can contribute to early wear and tear, ie arthritis – but also puts a tremendous strain on the back and neck. The spine – with all its discs, muscles and ligaments – and the pelvis, has to support the rest of the body. So, if there is extra weight, which generally pulls the body forward, all the components of the spine have to work very hard to maintain an upright posture. This means there...