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Low back pain

Back problems are common, with approximately 8 out of 10 people experiencing back pain at some time in their lives. In most cases the cause is not serious and, with the right guidance and support, people recover without the need for specific treatment or specialist help.

If you are having trouble coping with your back pain or are not managing to gradually return to normal activity your doctor will be able to assess your problem and provide advice.

How to manage low back pain

Low back pain can be helped by many things that you can do for yourself. The best advice is to keep gently active, even if it causes some extra pain. Taking pain relief regularly is important to help you keep moving and in most cases paracetamol or anti-inflammatories are best.

Further information is available on the advice for managing low back pain and sciatica page.

Sciatica

Sciatica is pain that travels down the back of your leg due to pressure on a nerve in your lower back. The pain in the leg is often more severe than the back pain and you may also notice tingling, numbness or weakness in your leg or foot. The early management of sciatica is very similar to managing low back pain and involves keeping moving. It may also be important to discuss what medications are best for relieving sciatica with your doctor.

Further information is available on the advice for managing low back pain and sciatica page.

Are scans necessary for low back pain?

If you have had back pain for less than 12 weeks X-rays and other scans such as CT and MRI are not required. If after four weeks your sciatica is severe, your doctor may recommend scans.

There are some exceptions to these rules and if your doctor has particular concerns, scans may be requested at an earlier stage. Further information about why scans may or may not needed see the scans and low back pain page.

What if the pain continues?

If your back pain is not improving and your pain is severe enough to consider surgery, your doctor may refer you to the Spinal Assessment Clinic (PDF 674KB).

Quitting smoking (PDF 89KB) and losing weight (PDF 107KB) can help your recovery from back pain and also reduce risks associated with having an operation.

More information is available about community support options (PDF 139KB)  to help people manage ongoing low back pain.

When to go to your doctor for low back pain

Occasionally, back pain can be the result of a serious problem. It is important to seek medical advice immediately if you have any of these symptoms:

  • difficulty passing or controlling urine
  • poor control of your bowels
  • numbness around your back passage or genitals
  • numbness, pins and needles or weakness in both legs
  • unsteadiness when walking
  • unexplained loss of weight
  • night sweats, chills, fevers, nausea/ vomiting or unrelenting night pain.

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