What is back pain?

Back pain intro

Acute back pain

Acute back pain is usually caused by a sprain or strain in the back. It is so common it should be seen as an annoying but normal part of life.

80% of the adult population in this country will have a significant episode of back pain in their life. Around 10% of the population have back pain at any one time.

It can come on quite suddenly, or over time, and can be caused by lifting or moving awkwardly, which can be extremely distressing and can sometimes stop you carrying out your everyday activities. However, more often than not, acute back pain comes on without any specific injury to your back.

You will often hear that the best thing you can do for back pain is to lie down and rest.

Chronic back pain

Chronic back pain can refer to recurrent back pain or pain that has lasted for several weeks.

Like acute back pain, it is usually caused by a strain or a sprain in the back but the pain can last for longer and it can have a bigger impact on your day-to-day life.

Chronic back pain can range from a mild pain or ache, to a more severe pain. This can depend on a variety of things, such as how happy you are at home or at work, if you are prone to depression or if you have had back pain before.

Chronic back pain usually requires treatment such as medication or physiotherapy. In most cases though, your back will heal itself. It is important that you keep active and continue as normal, but if your pain is severe and persistent then you should seek medical advice for diagnosis and the appropriate treatment.


Sciatica is a pain that travels down from your lower back or buttock, to your foot. It usually happens when something irritates the sciatic nerve a bit. 

The sciatic nerve runs down through the back, into the buttock, down the back of the leg and round to the outside of the lower leg and foot.

When the nerve gets irritated, the brain interprets the pain as coming from the buttock or leg instead of the back, where the problem actually is. The pain can be quite a severe shooting pain, sometimes accompanied with pins and needles or numbness.

Dealing with Back Pain

These are crucial for you to keep moving

Keep active

When you have back pain it is crucial for you to keep moving.

Movement is something you can do that contributes to your back getting better. Part of that process is allowing time for the body's natural healing to occur and this will be much better if you continue to move, even if this causes some discomfort.

It will not do any harm - remember, the spine is designed to move. 


Big changes have been made to the way back pain is managed in the NHS.

Through this website we are supporting the county's GPs in giving you the help you need to manage your own back. After all, back pain is so common, you're likely to have episodes of acute pain on and off throughout your life.

Your GP will help guide your recovery and prevention of further back pain by using the right pain killers as needed, along with some good advice.

When you need extra help they can help you decide what's best for you. As this website is strictly non-promotional we do not recommend specific practitioners.


Nine out of 10 cases of sciatica will heal without any specialist treatment - and more than seven out of 10 patients will report improvement within four weeks.

Keeping active is very important, but it may often be necessary to take pain killers to allow you to do this.

You shouldn't be afraid of masking the pain as much as possible, as keeping active will not do you any more harm.

Your GP or physiotherapist will be able to recommend activities that will help you keep moving and stop your muscles getting out of shape

It's normal to feel some discomfort during recovery - but this is not harmful. 

Warning signs

Rarely, the discs in your back can press on part of the spinal cord that is responsible for bowel and bladder function. If you suffer from any of the symptoms below, you should visit A&E.

  • Loss or decreased sensation around the buttock area.
  • Inability to hold on to your urine or bowels.
  • Inability to pass urine or get an erection.
  • Pain into both legs.
  • Progressive weakness in the legs.

At Work

You are better continuing with activity, including work, even if you are still in some pain. People who remain active have far better outcomes than those who don't.

If you are struggling with back pain:

  • Inform your manager

  • Seek professional advice

  • Keep mobile

  • Stay at work as long as possible, this helps with your rehabilitation and recovery

  • Use pain killers to help you carry on – it’s the movement that will get you better, and the pain killers will allow you to move by masking the pain.


If you have to go off work sick use that time to get your back better - this might mean going out for walks, to the shops, etc. Don't feel that just because you are off work you should not keep active - you must!

Stay in touch with your workplace. Hopefully your employer will be trying to keep in touch with you as well. Be open-minded about getting back to work as soon as possible. This can be facilitated by changes to your normal job role, hours and even where you work.

The longer you remain off work the more difficult it becomes to get back to work.

Avoiding Back Pain

Avoid back pain at work

Many people spend at least eight hours a day at work so it is important to look after your back during this time. There are all sorts of forces, movements and postures that can cause your back to ache, but there is a lot that you can do to protect your back.

  • Avoid positions in which your back is bent and twisted at the same time.

  • Avoid reaching - both when lifting and when carrying out other tasks.

  • If you have to lift things at work plan the lift first and use good technique.

  • If you work in a static job, seated or standing make sure your work set-up is correct for you.

  • Avoid prolonged static postures, for example sitting at a telephone station or VDU - take regular postural breaks.

  • Use equipment provided to reduce the load on your back.

At Your Desk

Working at a desk all day can take its toll on your back.
Simply by having your desk set up incorrectly you can cause an episode of back pain - which can make working feel almost impossible.

  • Try to have your computer screen at eye level in front of you and your chair directly facing it, to avoid unnecessary twisting.

  • Have your mouse and keyboard within easy reaching distance so that you don't have to stretch to use them.

  • Take regular breaks and get up and walk around the office regularly, to stretch out your muscles and give your back a rest.

Lifting & Handling 

 When lifting and handling heavy goods, it is important that you take extra care with your back.
It's so easy to strain the muscles in your back by bending down and lifting an item - and it can cause back pain to come on quite suddenly.

  • Whether it's heavy stacks of paper in an office or machinery - always use your knees to bend down and lift - instead of your back.

  • If possible, use lifting and moving equipment such as a trolley to aid you.

  • Always test the weight of the item you are about to lift by pushing it with your foot. This way you know what to expect.

  • Always plan ahead to ensure that where you are moving the item to is clear and uncluttered - this avoids having to hold the item for longer, causing unnecessary strain.


On Your Feet

If your job requires you to be on your feet all day, then it's likely you will at some point have suffered from aches and pains.
Standing is generally better for your back than sitting as it puts less pressure on your lower back, but it is important to try and keep moving and walking around and to sit every so often.

  • As with all jobs, getting regular exercise and keeping fit outside of work will greatly improve the strength of your back and reduce your chances of getting back pain.

  • Take regular breaks to stretch your muscles - this will prevent stiffness and keep your circulation going.

Avoid at home

Whether you're out in the garden or cleaning the house - what you get up to at home can often have an impact on your back.

But by following some simple tips and advice, you can keep your back in check and prevent any pain from happening.

Gardening & DIY 

For many people, gardening is an enjoyable hobby that allows them to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life and get back to nature in the great outdoors.

For detailed advice on avoiding injury when gardening download our information leaflet on the right. But key general tips are:

  • Take a moment to warm up

  • Digging - take a wide stance and let your leg muscles do the work. If necessary, lever the spade using your foot if the soil is dense and heavy.

  • Moving tubs - roll them onto their outer rims to avoid lifting

If carrying can't be avoided, the following tips should help:

  • Ensure you're wearing loose, casual clothing and sensible shoes

  • Lift close to the body and pick up and set down using the powerful leg muscles. Pull your tummy in and breath out on lifting

  • Keep your back straight.

  • Plan movements of compost bags/soil/chippings using wheels wherever possible

  • Wheelbarrows - these are hard to use safely so don't overload

When bending:

  • Avoid stooping

  • Squat if you can, or bend your knees as far as possible with one foot in front of the other but keeping your back straight.

  • Otherwise go down on one knee

  • If you are tired, STOP for a break and a reverse stretch instead of pressing on


Around the House

Back pain affects around 8 out of 10 of us at some time, but by following a few simple tips you can ensure that you can do those everyday household activities without pain or discomfort.

Keep active

Regular exercise is vital in keeping back pain at bay by toning your muscles, allowing your body to support your back much better.

People with good fitness levels tend to experience less back pain, so get out of the house and go walking, swimming or cycling for half an hour a day. Exercise classes such as yoga or pilates are also great for your back, and visiting the gym can also help.

Keeping active is also good for you if you're already suffering from back pain. Even if exercising feels painful, it will not harm your back and keeping active is one of the best ways to allow your back to recover.

However, it is also important to take care when exercising, as a careless twist, bend or pull could strain your back and result in an episode of back pain.

  • Warm up - Always make time to warm up before any exercise. Gently stretch both your upper and lower body to get your circulation going and to loosen up your muscles. If you already have back pain take extra care not to overstretch.

  • Good posture - If you are lifting weights at the gym, make sure you bend your knees and use your leg muscles to lift - not your back.

  • Correct equipment - It is crucial when exercising you have the correct equipment and clothing. For example, if running, always wear proper running shoes that fit properly. Also, if you are playing tennis or badminton, make sure you buy a racket that is not too bulky or heavy for you.

  • Cool down - Gently stretching your muscles after exercise is just as important as warming up. It loosens your muscles, helping to prevent stiffness later.

  • Early intervention - If you do seriously hurt your back whilst exercising, make sure you visit your GP as soon as possible. Treating sport injuries at a later date is much more difficult.

Additional Resources

Patient Resources

For 10 things you need to know about back pain then click here. 

For an information leaflet on lower back pain Back pain[pdf] 666KB

For a back pain Excerise sheet Back Pain Exercise Sheet[pdf] 486KB

Useful Videos

Self refer into our service

It is important that you apply the advice and guidance provided above for around 8 weeks by which time we would expect you to notice improvement, and in some cases complete recovery. If not, we have a team of trained physios who can help.

Click here to self refer into our service today.

Think you need more urgent or emergency treatment? Click here to see if you need to see someone quicker. 

You can also visit your GP for more informaion and advice on;

  • Women's and Men's Health including pelvic floor and incontinence
  • If you have had a series of falls and want to learn more to help avoid them
  • If you have reduced mobility and require a stick or frame
  • If you require neurological support for example if you have had a stroke or Parkinson's
  • If you are housebound
  • If you are under 16 years old