Don't break your back!

Strains to the ligaments and muscles supporting your lower back are the commonest causes of low back pain.

Your back is a miracle of human engineering. It supports the whole weight of your body, but is flexible enough for you to bend and twist. The complicated scaffolding of back bones - your vertebrae - surrounds and protects the vital spinal cord carrying nerve signals from your brain. Squashy discs between the vertebrae provide shock absorption, and hundreds of interconnecting muscles and tough, non-stretchy ligaments keep the spine steady and strong. But with so many bits involved, there's plenty to go wrong, so it's hardly surprising about four in five of us get low back pain at some point.

As the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness (or, after the summer we've had, more rain and wind) draws on and we take to the garden to clear up the leaves, the unaccustomed exercise can wreak havoc on our backs. Read on to avoid being one of these statistics!

What's the common cause of low back pain?

Strains to the ligaments and muscles supporting your lower back are the commonest causes of low back pain. One of the most common sites is your sacroiliac joints, at either side of the base of your spine where it joins your pelvis.

You can strain ligaments or muscles by overstretching (such as sports like tennis which involve sudden twisting); lifting very heavy weights, or lifting incorrectly (bags or garden waste or heavy digging); or from repeated movements (such as home decorating, digging or spring cleaning). These injuries are all more common if you're not used to doing them. That's why spending hours digging or weeding is such a common cause. So too is pruning, if you're stretching up high and using muscles you haven't flexed for months.

Gardening tips - the medical version!

You'll never find a doctor who will discourage anyone from regular exercise. But simple stretching exercises before you pick up your spade, and a few simple tips, will reduce the risk of back pain.

  • Take regular (at least hourly) breaks to stretch, especially if you've been hunched over a flowerbed
  • Alternate jobs that use different muscle groups, like weeding, mowing and pruning
  • Don't be tempted to lift heavy weights by yourself. Wait for a friend (or a hulking teenager!) or make several trips with smaller loads

Lifting weights with less strain

To reduce the pressure on your spine when carrying any load from branches to laundry, bend from the knees, not the spine; keep your back straight; hold weights close to your body; and never lift and twist at the same time. Always lift a load straight in front of you

I've got backache - what now?

Doctors used to recommend bed rest for low back pain, but we now know keeping up your usual activities is better if possible (unless you have a cause for worry, below). But that doesn't mean going back to the garden - avoid any lifting or twisting for at least two weeks. Painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen and topical rubs or anti-inflammatory gels (your pharmacist can advise) will help. If pain persists, talk to your GP about physiotherapy.

When should I worry?

Most low back pain settles on its own within days or weeks. But always get yourself checked out immediately if you have any 'red flag' symptoms:

  • Pain in the spine connected to your ribcage
  • Pain in your legs worse than your back pain
  • Pain not relieved by lying still.

Or pain connected with:

A recent fall or other injury

  • Weakness in your legs
  • Numbness around your bottom
  • Having had cancer or osteoporosis in the past
  • Feeling generally unwell, fever or losing weight
  • New problems with your waterworks or bowels.

Your doctor will usually be able to reassure you, but better safe than sorry.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.