Lower back pain is the greatest source of global disability, ahead of nearly 300 other conditions, leading to huge levels of healthcare costs and suffering. And the effects go far beyond pain, weakness and stiffness – they also have a huge impact the social and family lives of sufferers.
Many people with lower back pain don’t manage it well because of wrong advice – and a lot of unhelpful myths about what back pain is and what you should do about it. Healthcare professionals all over the world speak to patients who think, for example, that back pain can damage their backs. This is not always the case. The weight of evidence shows that many assumptions made about lower back pain are wrong and, what’s more, could be harmful. Below are some of the most common misconceptions.
1. Moving will make my back pain worse
Do not fear twisting and bending. It is essential to keep moving. Muscles that are in spasm, due to pain, relax when gently moved and stretched. Gradually increase how much you are doing, and stay on the move.
2. Avoid exercise (especially weight training)
Back pain should not stop you enjoying exercise or regular activities. In fact, studies have found that continuing with these can help you get better sooner – including weight training. All exercise is safe provided you gradually build up intensity and do not immediately return to previous levels of exercise after an acute episode of pain.
3. A scan will show exactly what is wrong
There is a poor correlation between findings on a scan and sources of pain. Most adults without back pain will have changes in the anatomy of their spine that are visible age-related adaptations that don’t cause any problems (they are the spinal equivalent of skin wrinkles, visible but not a source of pain). Finding a feature on a spine scan that is strongly related to pain or a serious threat to health is exceptionally rare (less than 1%).
4. Pain equals damage
This was an established view, but more recent research has changed our thinking. Level of pain has very little relationship to damage to the spine and more to do with your unconscious and conscious interpretation of the level of threat the pain represents to the sufferer. Cultural influences, work, stress, past experience and duration of symptoms have a stronger relationship with pain than the number of normal age-related changes you have on your scan.
5. Heavy school bags cause back pain
Heavy school bags are safe. There is no established link between heavy school bags and back pain, but interestingly there is a link with the development of back pain and the child or parent perceiving that the bag will cause problems.
Having episodes of back pain is so common that it is abnormal not to have some back pain at some time in your life. Because it is so common, a lot of everyday things, including slouching, twisting, carrying heavy things and exercise, are wrongly blamed for causing or worsening the problem.
Having an episode of spinal pain is a normal event in life and while most episodes are brief it is useful to see a healthcare professional for guidance on aiding recovery on occasion.
And it is much better to heed good advice, rather than myths, for a speedier recovery.
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About The Author
Chris McCarthy, Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University