Common myths about back pain
09.07.18|Posted by Georgina Hoare

Common myths about back pain

Back pain is a common musculoskeletal complaint, but it is often misunderstood and there are lots of myths associated with it that can be really unhelpful.

If you have been experiencing back pain for a long time or if the pain is severe, then it can be tempting to search online and to look for ‘answers’. 

There are a lot of preconceived ideas and worries associated with back pain out there.

These can be really unhelpful when it comes to treating and managing the pain – here are a few of them…

Myth 1 - My back pain feels so severe there must be a serious cause 

Back pain is incredibly common and the seriousness of the pain does not necessarily reflect the severity of an underlying cause.

It’s important to remember that your back pain will most likely go away on its own, improve with the right management or with support from a physiotherapist.  

Very few people experience back pain due to what we call a serious pathology. This means that problems like cancer, broken bones, infection or disease are very rare. 

If your back pain is related to a serious pathology then you would likely experience other concerning and serious symptoms. 

Doctors and physiotherapists will always ask a series of screening questions to rule out any serious pathology as part of your initial diagnosis. 

Myth 2 - Pain means damage

Just because you’re feeling pain does not mean that any additional damage is being done to your back. 

Pain is complex and has many different triggers, including psychological influences as well as physical or mechanical causes. 

Pain signals travel from the part of your body where you are experiencing the pain through many different nerve endings to your brain where they are processed. 

The brain then decides what to do with the signals, for example whether to ignore them or to give you more pain. This happens constantly throughout the day. 

Myth 3 - Scans will tell me what is wrong 

Scans such as X-rays and MRIs are unlikely to give you the ‘answers’ that you are looking for. 

There is no evidence that routine scanning improves treatment outcomes when it comes to back pain. 

Professor Richard Deyo found that only 1 in 2,500 scans identified an important finding related to back pain. 

There’s also evidence to suggest that scanning can have a psychological impact on how you may perceive your back and back pain. 

There was a famous study that scanned 98 healthy people with no back pain. Of these 98 people around 2/3 of them had natural degradation to the discs, but this was not causing them any pain. 

What this tells us is that your outlook and attitude towards your back pain can be just as important as any mechanical problems or physical causes. 

Myth 4 - I need more intensive treatment 

More aggressive and intensive treatment does not mean improved outcomes or that your back pain will be ‘cured’. 

Research is constantly showing us that simple lifestyle changes, education and management techniques make the biggest difference to back pain. 

The causes of back pain are often multifactorial. This means that there may be a number of different causes, including psychological, lifestyle and behavioural influences as well as physical. 

This means that treating your back pain may require patience and a number of different approaches before you see any improvement. 

This doesn’t mean that your doctor or physiotherapist doesn’t know what they are doing, so you should trust their advice and work together.  

Myth 5 - Exercise will cause more damage 

Many people with back pain fear exercise or movement because they are afraid that it will make the pain worse or that it is doing damage. 

Being active is actually an essential part of managing back pain and your overall wellbeing. 

Whilst your pain may not change when you are being active or moving, this does not mean that you should avoid activity altogether or that it is doing you harm. 

Your physiotherapist will be able to help you find ways of moving and being more active. 

Myth 6 - Backs are weak 

Your back is actually one of the strongest structures in your body and it is incredibly well designed. 

It’s a clever network of muscles, bones and joints that all interact to help you move every day. 

The sophisticated nature of this area and the demand that we put on our backs means that at times we may experience back pain. 

It does not mean that your back is weak or insecure. 

Myth 7 - My back is out of place, I must have slipped a disc

Many patients who seek physiotherapy for back pain think that they have slipped a disc or that their back is out of place. 

The discs in your spine will not just slip or pop out. They cannot physically go anywhere or be put back in, because the complex system of muscles, ligaments and tissues around them keeps them in place. 

Sometimes the disc and muscles around it may experience what we call a disc bulge. There are varying degrees of disc bulges and these can sometimes put pressure on your nerves. 

Not all disc problems cause back pain and if they do it tends to create a numbness or pain down the leg. This is commonly known as sciatica. 

Myth 8 - Painkillers will mask the problem 

Some people feel that they don’t want to take pain medication because it will mask the pain and any further ‘damage’ that they may be causing. 

Pain medication can be an important and beneficial way to manage your back pain, particularly if you have persistent or recurrent back pain. 

You should take pain medication as prescribed by your doctor or pharmacist. 

Seek advice if you feel your pain relief isn’t working or if you feel like it’s too much. 

Myth 9 - Bed rest will help me 

Completely immobilising your back, taking time off work and so-called ‘bed rest’ is not the answer to back pain. 

In fact, it can actually increase your chances of your back pain becoming a longer term or chronic problem. 

If you stay in bed for 24 hours and don’t move then your muscles lose strength and weaken dramatically, which isn’t good for your back or overall physical health. 

Staying in bed can also have an impact on your mental wellbeing and leave you feeling low, which has the potential to affect how you move forward from the pain. 

Bed rest is outdated thinking and we now know that staying active and maintaining as much of a normal lifestyle as possible increases your chances of feeling better, faster. 

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