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The best ways to reduce or eliminate lower back pain

Research shows that 1 in 6 Australians have back problems

A young woman wearing headphones around her neck stretches her arms out in front of her at a desk
A young woman wearing headphones around her neck stretches her arms out in front of her at a desk

Whether it’s a muscle spasm, sharp pain, dull ache or a combination of all of the above, back pain is something most of us will experience from time to time. Research1 shows that one in six Australians have back problems, with an estimated 70-90 per cent of us suffering from lower back pain at some point in our lives. It’s also very common for that pain to recur over time.

Depending on its severity, consistent back pain can impact everything from daily activities to your performance at work and overall mental wellbeing. So, how do you know if what you’re experiencing is the result of a slight twinge or if it’s something more serious?

Related: Doctor dictionary: Who should I see for what?

What causes lower back pain?

Lower back pain is a leading cause of disability worldwide, and nearly all cases have no specific cause (known as non-specific lower back pain). So, unless you’ve recently joined CrossFit after years of not exercising or tried to single-handedly lift a fridge up a set of stairs on moving day, it can be difficult to determine the cause of your pain. Clear cause or not, there is a lot you can do to recover from lower back pain and minimise the chances of it reoccurring.

What are the symptoms of non-specific lower back pain?

  • A dull ache or stiffness in your lower back

  • Pain that travels downwards to your bottom

  • Pain that increases in intensity after long periods of sitting down

Credit: DocMikeEvans

What is the difference between acute and chronic back pain?

In most instances of acute back pain, the discomfort will often resolve itself within three to six weeks. This type of back pain can come and go, which is a normal part of the condition; so a visit to the doctor isn’t always necessary. If the pain doesn’t go away after a few weeks, or if it starts getting worse, you should seek advice from a health professional.

Chronic back pain lasts for more than 12 weeks, even after the underlying cause of pain has been treated. For chronic back pain sufferers, the discomfort can often feel like a life sentence, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

What works for back pain?

With the support of a medical practitioner or physio, there are a number of things that can be done to help ease back pain and let you get on with the more important things in life. But, when it comes to reducing lower back pain, some solutions are significantly more effective than others. With that in mind, here’s an outline of the different techniques that can treat or minimise back-related pain.

1. Movement

When you’re suffering from back pain, you might be tempted to kick your feet up and binge-watch old Seinfeld episodes, but too much rest can actually make things worse. According to the experts at The Australian Medical Journal, people with lower back pain should be encouraged to stay active, avoid bed rest, continue daily activities and stay at work. Exercise is generally accepted amongst all respected authorities to be the best method for treating lower back pain in both acute and chronic phases. Ready to move? Check out our 5 simple morning stretches for beginners.

2. Manual therapy

Seeing a physio can also help in some instances. Your practitioner will use their hands to mobilise, adjust, massage or stimulate your spine and surrounding tissues. These are techniques that have been shown to provide small to moderate short-term benefits in people with chronic back pain.

3. Medication

Medication can play a role in reducing pain to help you keep active, but it’s crucial that you consult a GP first for personalised medical advice. Pain medication can relieve your symptoms and improve your mobility but it's designed to provide short-term relief.

4. Maintenance

An important part of managing back pain is to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise. Exercise helps to keep the structure of your back strong and healthy, and the feel-good hormones that are released during exercise can make us less sensitive to pain. Keep in mind that some exercises can aggravate back pain, so it’s best to seek advice as well as a training and nutrition plan from an experienced professional before you hit the gym or the pavement. This is particularly important if you have been unable to maintain regular exercise in the past due to your pain.

A female physiotherapist helping a senior man stretch a long piece of material over his head

Does surgery work for back pain?

When it comes to reducing back pain, surgery should be a last resort for the most serious conditions, only when other therapies have failed to work. Surgical procedures aren’t always successful and there is little evidence to show effectiveness, which is why the majority of back pain – even of the chronic variety – is not treated under the knife. On average, the results for spinal surgery are no better in the medium and long-term than non-surgical interventions, such as exercise.

Need a helping hand?

If you have Extras cover with nib and would like to make an appointment to see a physio, our nib First Choice network should be your first port of call to keep your out-of-pocket expenses low.

nib's First Choice Network is a community of trusted healthcare providers that nib has partnered with to ensure our members receive high quality treatment for an affordable price. The network has now expanded to include physiotherapists, dentists and optometrists.

As an nib member, if you opt for an nib First Choice physio, not only can you expect to save on average 15%, but you’ll also receive on-the-spot claiming. When developing this community, we targeted many of the providers our members regularly use already, so you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that your next physiotherapist appointment costs less!

At nib, we’re passionate about giving our members options, so you can always choose to see the physio of your choice, but by choosing an nib First Choice physio, it simply means you could pay less. Search the nib First Choice network now to find a provider.

When to seek further advice

The advice provided throughout this article is for simple lower back pain, which is the type of back pain that the vast majority of us will experience.

Back pain that requires emergency medical attention:

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control or an inability to pass urine

  • Loss of sensation around the genitals and buttocks (your ‘saddle area’)

  • Unsteadiness in walking that isn’t due to pain

  • Numbness/tingling in one or both legs

Back pain that you should speak to your GP about:

  • Pain is severe and unremitting

  • Pain is worse at night

  • You’ve lost weight unexpectedly

  • You feel generally unwell (with severe fatigue or fever)

Confused about who to see for what? Check out our article, Osteo vs physio vs chiro: What’s the difference?

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

1Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014-15 National Health Survey