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Could back pain be Australia’s biggest health problem?

6 min read
18 Aug 2016

Feeling a little sore in your back lately? Do you come home with back pain after a long day at the office or a tough session at the gym? If so, you’re unfortunately part of the growing number of Australians who are experiencing these aches and pains!

“Back problems are a significant issue for people in Australia, 80% of my clients have lower back pain and I believe this is because the majority of the public spend too much time sitting throughout the day whether this is at home or at their place of work,” says Dr. Robert Amato, Director and Principal Osteopath at Body & Health Creation in Melbourne

“There are so many different types of back pain a person can experience like sharp acute disc and nerve pain, dull aches, chronic muscle pain and the list goes on. People need to become more aware of the symptoms of back pain and how their daily activities contribute towards this type of pain.”

A back pain epidemic?

Aside from the common cold, back pain has become the most widespread health complaint experienced by adult Australians according to recent Roy Morgan research findings. As of March this year, over 7.4 million Australians aged 18 and over reported having back pain at least once in the last year. Incredibly, that’s more than two in every five Australian adults feeling these back pain symptoms!

The recent health data also showed that over a 12 month period, nearly 41% of 30 – 34 year olds and almost 43% of Aussies aged 80 and over experienced back pain. It seems that once you’ve hit that 30 age milestone, you’re more prone to back problems. Interestingly, it may be assumed that the more physically demanding an occupation is, the worse the back pain. However, according to the data, this isn’t the case. Some examples include labourers, with 40.5% experiencing some level of back pain and admin workers who experience the exact same proportion of back pain. Technicians and Trades Workers are the most likely to be affected with back pain (43.2%) with White Collar Workers following close behind (39.5%).

However, there is a major link between a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI) and their susceptibility to back pain. Nearly half of Australian adults whose BMI is categorised as obese have back problems and aches, compared to those with a BMI that is considered overweight (39.8%), acceptable (35.9%) and underweight (35.3%). Moving away from BMI and onto sports, a third of adults who love to participate in sports regularly experienced back pain in the last 12 months. It’s difficult to then pinpoint one specific cause or factor of back pain in Australia.

Man with back pain

Nonspecific lower back pain

This is the most common type of back pain that most people will have at some point in their life. The “nonspecific” label of this type of back pain means that it’s not clear what has caused the pain in the first place. No specific problem or disease is identified as the main cause of the pain. The severity of the pain can vary from mild and to severe.

Nerve root pain (sciatica)

This type of acute low back pain happens to very few people but is still something that can affect your whole body. Nerve root pain is when the nerve coming out from the spinal cord is irritated or has pressured applied to it. With the nerve pressure, you tend to feel pain down your leg and sometimes as far down as the calf or foot. This can often cause pins and needles or numbness in the leg or foot. Many cases of nerve root back pain are caused by a slipped disc.

Cauda equina syndrome

This is a particularly serious type of nerve root problem but is very rare. This is when the nerves at the bottom of the spinal cord are pressed on. The syndrome can cause lower back pain plus issues with bowel and bladder functions, numbness around the lower back and weakness in the legs. Urgent attention needs to be taken with cauda equina.

Less common causes of lower back pain

Inflammation of the joints (arthritis) and of the spine can also cause bad back pain. Examples of this include: osteoarthritis (often occurs in older people), ankylosing spondylitis (occurs in young adults and can cause pain and stiffness in the lower back), and rheumatoid arthritis (can affect the spine and joints).  Types of bone disorders, infections and added pressures on the spine can also occasionally cause lower back pain.

So what are the symptoms of back pain?

Back pain can occur in a variety of ways; from lifting something heavy, straining a muscle after a gym class, sitting in the same position all day at work. Sometimes, it can come out of nowhere; you’ll wake up one day and find that your back is in a lot of pain. Although nonspecific back pain can be referred to as “simple” back pain, this doesn’t mean the pain is always mild. The severity of the pain can range from mild to severe and is usually found in the lower back but can spread to the legs. Lying down flat can sometimes ease the pain but remember that it can be made a lot worse by moving a lot, coughing or sneezing. The pain varies with both posture and activity.

It can be common to have recurrences of the pain from time to time, even after the back pain seems to have subsided. Dr Amato gives some insight into how we can manage the pain and why the number of people experiencing the back aches continues to increase.

Ways to address back pain

“I definitely recommend less sitting, regular exercise, regular mobility management and regular back and joint treatments, along with a balanced healthy diet and adequate water intake. Along with better movement and a better diet, watching out for when the pain first begins is also crucial,” says Dr Amato

“If you start to feel pain while sitting or bending and that pain also travels down to your legs and even feet, see a doctor or specialist. A poor posture and repetitive strains to the back while completing tasks will often set these symptoms in motion.”

“Weight is another major factor in the rising low back pain epidemic, less sugary and fatty foods and more fruit and veg can improve your health and your back pains. Don’t forget to see your local osteopath for any further advice or treatment if symptoms persist.”

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