Back and Neck Pain
Most people suffer back or neck pain at some point in their life. Back pain affects 80% of Australians, while 50% of us experience neck pain. The causes of back and neck pain are vast, and symptoms can appear suddenly or develop over time. Recovery from debilitating back or neck pain is also variable, with some people immediately responding to treatment, while others experience debilitating pain for months or even years.
Anyone who has experienced back or neck pain will be familiar with the endless health advice administered by unqualified but well intended friends or family. While it’s good to have support, real help can be found in the hands of qualified health professionals dedicated to assessing injuries and resolving symptoms. Back and neck pain are major causes of employee sick-leave, high healthcare costs and disability among both adults and children.
What are the causes of back and neck pain?
In some cases, the immediate cause of back or neck pain can be accurately diagnosed and effectively treated. In other situations, the precursors of back or neck pain are difficult to pinpoint. Back and neck pain can be caused by any of the following reasons:
- Poor posture
- Injury or trauma to the neck or back
- Overexertion or repetitive lifting
- Excessive sitting
- Diminished muscle tone
- Muscle tension
- Sprains, strains and muscle tears
- Stress reactions or fractures
Additional but infrequent causes include general ageing, abnormal growths, herniated disks, pinched nerves, abdominal problems and congenital abnormalities. Back and neck pain can also be intermittent and manifest unexpectedly, with levels of pain being variable and even referred to other areas.
General stress can also make the experience of back and neck pain worse. The back and neck are common areas where chronic or persistent pain can arise. In these situations, the original source of the pain has healed but the person continues to experience pain. This leads to a vicious cycle of fear, worry, protecting the body, stiffness, immobility and weakness leading to on-going pain and disability.
Pain can even result from regular movement like extended periods of standing or sitting. In most cases the pain will naturally ease, but as with most ailments, the problem can get worse or spread if appropriate action isn’t taken. In this case the muscles tend to tense up to protect the damaged area. This natural bodily response, although welcome in certain circumstances, can cause surrounding muscles to over-compensate or be misused, resulting in further complications. When pain is extreme, sleep will also be disturbed, and an additional opportunity to heal is lost.
Can back and neck pain be prevented?
Simple lifestyle changes will enable most people to function without back and neck pain. Preventative measures include:
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain good posture at all times when standing, sitting or moving
- Always lift heavy (and light) objects correctly
- Set weight loss goals and stick to the program
- Be mindful of general stresses that cause tension
- Consider job choices that won’t predispose to back and neck pain
Treating back and neck pain
Although there are many types of back and neck pain, the cause is usually non-specific and a particular tissue injury cannot be detected. These mechanically caused pains are often due to bad posture and are most noticeable in people who spend much of their day bent over a desk, sitting on the way to work, and more sitting whilst watching TV or using electronic devices in leisure time. These pains will generally diminish within a short space of time, with simple analgesia if required and gentle movement.
X-rays, MRIs and other tests are often not required to diagnose most types of mechanical back and neck pain. Abnormal findings are very common with normal ageing and can be over interpreted as causes of pain. Indeed the “Choose Wisely” campaign recommends these tests are not performed in simple non-specific back pain.
In any case, a doctor should be consulted to determine a course of action for recovery from back or neck pain. Sport and Exercise Medicine Physicians, Physiotherapists and Exercise Physiologists are qualified to help diagnose and implement a recovery and rehabilitation program suited to individual needs according to the injury or severity of pain.
Improved mobility and a return to regular activities is the goal of rehabilitation. There are lots of methods employed in a personalised recovery plan, including:
- Exercises for improving range of motion, flexibility and muscle strength
- Pain management, including appropriate medications
- Improving posture
- Stress management and reduction
- Education related to the spine and muscles in the back and neck
- Ergonomic improvements to the work and home environments
- Vocational training
Although a visit to your regular doctor is usually the first step in recovery, he or she may be assisted by specialists familiar with sporting and musculoskeletal injuries. Back and neck pain can result in a range of physical and psychological symptoms that are detrimental to health, functionality and even relationships, so it’s important to have the right team on your side during every stage of diagnosis and recovery. North Sydney Sports Medicine bring these specialists together for a holistic diagnosis and recovery plan.