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Back-to-basics: back pain

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Back-to-basics: Back pain – Live Great – Great Eastern Life

Watch your back
Backache is more common than you think. Apart from the common cold, back pain is one of the most often cited causes of lost days at work. It is also one of the most common reasons why people visit a doctor or the hospital emergency department.

In Singapore, as many as 8 in 10 adults would have experienced backache once in their lives. In fact, almost 20 per cent of the population would have experienced at least one back or neck pain episode recently, shared Ms Sylvia Ho, Principal Physiotherapist at Core Concepts, the largest private physiotherapy group in Singapore. “In a group of five colleagues or friends, one of you would have experienced a back or neck pain episode within the past six months,” she said.

The Root of Back Pain
Back pain can be due to several reasons. Bad posture or wrong lifting techniques when carrying heavy loads are common offenders. Other causes include accidents, muscle strain and sport injuries. “More often than not, back pain occurs as a result of muscle strain from excessive loads on the spine and its joints, and from repeatedly stressing a particular joint in the spine,” Ms Ho explained.

But back pain can also be a lifestyle issue. In Singapore, backaches are usually the result of physical deconditioning (the deterioration of heart and skeletal muscle) coupled with a sedentary lifestyle due to desk bound jobs, said Dr Janet Ruth Sosna from the Elder Chiropractic Clinic.
 
While there are multiple causes of back pain, they share the same symptoms. Some of the red flags to look out for include:

  • Persistent aching or stiffness along the spine
  • Sharp pain in the back
  • The inability to stand straight without severe muscle spasms in the low back

Seek medical help if the acute pain that does not subside within 24-hours, there is numbness in a limb, or when the pain is limiting daily activities, said Dr Sosna.

Even if the pain disappears, it is still prudent to get medical help, Ms Ho advised. “If the back pain occurs frequently but goes away on its own, the person should also seek medical advice on why it occurs in the first place. Often this can prevent further problems down the road that are more complex and harder to resolve like slip discs.”

Caring For the Back
There are many types of medical professionals that treat back pain, from general practitioners to specialist orthopaedic doctors. In most cases, it is best to see your primary care physician first to access the problem and be referred to a specialist if necessary.

The basic remedies for mild back pain due to muscle strains include hot packs, anti-inflammatory medication and stretches. Massages also sometimes help with tight muscles. Bed rest is only recommended in severe cases as prolonged bed rest of more than 48 hours can lead to further physical deconditioning, said Dr Sosna.

Because back pain can be difficult to treat, preventing back pain is much easier than treating it after an injury. Regular exercise helps to stretch and strengthen the back and supporting muscles. Taking note of the little details in your daily life helps too. Do you tend to hunch at your desk? Wear high heels more often than is necessary? Cross your legs when you sit? These little habits can lead to back trouble. Also, ditch that cigarette if you are a smoker: researchers from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health have found that smokers have a 31 per cent higher risk of low back pain than non-smokers.

Above all, keep mum’s familiar advice about not slouching in mind. After all, good posture can go a long way, said Dr Sosna. “Good posture at work, rest and play are extremely important. Invest in good ergonomics for your office and homework stations, especially the computer, as two-thirds of people who work in front of a computer have neck and upper back pain.”

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