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FAQs - Back pain

What is back pain?

Answer: Back pain is any ache, pain, tension, or disorder that affects the muscles or bones of the back from the base of the neck to the hips. It can be caused by damage to the muscles or the bones of the spine and ribs or to the disc between the vertebrae.

What causes back pain?

Answer: The exact cause of back pain is often unclear, but it is more common in roles that involve:

What are the symptoms?

Answer: Painful, tenderness or stiffness of the backbone, unable to straighten or bend your back properly. In extreme cases sufferers are unable to move due to the pain and numbness or paralysis may occur. For muscular problems there may be tenderness, aches and pains, stiffness, weakness, tingling, numbness, cramp and swelling to your muscles of the torso, which may cause some breathing issues too e.g. pain on taking deep breaths.

Back pain is not usually due to any serious damage or disease. The pain usually improves within days or a few weeks, at least enough to get on with your life. Only a few people have back pain that is caused by a more serious issue such as a slipped disc or a trapped nerve and even these usually get better by themselves.
If you have severe pain which gets worse over several weeks, or if you are unwell with back pain, you should see your doctor. If you do have back pain and suddenly notice any of these symptoms, which are rare, you should see a doctor straight away:

What advice is available for back pain?

Answer: The general advice to those suffering from back pain is to stay active and try simple pain relief. However, if the pain persists or causes extreme discomfort then you should contact your GP for medical advice.

Because back pain has many causes, a precise diagnosis is not always possible and this makes management of the pain all the more important. There are options that your medical advisers may suggest such as physiotherapy, chiropractic or osteopathy.

Information is also available from other sources on our Links page.

Check Back pain in the workplace.

What should I do if I have been suffering from continual back pain but my employer has not done anything to help me?

Answer: The action that should be taken will depend on individual circumstances, but it is important to understand that not all MSDs - including back pain - can be prevented so early reporting of symptoms, proper treatment and suitable rehabilitation are essential.

We are working hard, with others, to educate and support employers in the recognition and prevention of MSDs in the workplace. If you belong to a trade union, you should speak to a safety representative who will relay your issues to your employer. Alternatively, you can ask your GP to provide a 'fit' note that clarifies the problem you are experiencing, and therefore what aspects of your job may be causing you problems. If your organisation has an occupational health service, you could also ask for a referral.

What law applies to back pain?

Answer: Employers have legal duties under:

These duties include ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of employees at work, and assessing and reducing potential risks to their health, safety and wellbeing. Employers have a duty to do something if there is a problem which is causing or aggravating existing symptoms.

Updated 2012-03-19