Back muscles are among the most frequently used muscles in the body. They hold you upright against gravity, carry your body weight and move you around.
And just like you, they can get tired and overworked. When that happens, your spine compensates and does extra work, causing pain.
Back pain is a very common problem in Singapore, according to Dr Tan Kian Hian, consultant at the Department of Anaesthesiology, and director of the Pain Management Centre at Singapore General Hospital.
“About 90 per cent of the population will have had pain in the back at some point in their lives,” says Dr Tan. “Fortunately, most cases can be resolved without treatment within six to 12 weeks.”
When to see a doctor
Typically caused by muscle strain, acute back pain usually lasts less than three months. If the pain interferes with daily activities, a medical consultation is in order. The doctor will physically examine your back and compile a history of your back problems.
Chronic back pain, on the other hand, is any pain that persists for more than three months. It is common, especially among those aged 55 and above, and can be caused by ailments such as a slipped disc, spinal arthritis or disc disruption – a wear and tear of the “spring” in between the bones of our spine.
You should see a specialist in the following situations:
- If the pain in your back is not getting better after some time, or if it’s getting worse
- If the pain shoots down one side of your leg to the foot
- If you feel numbness or a tingling sensation
- If your pain is worsened by bending over, or by coughing and straining
HOT TIP: We often don’t remember the exact names of the medicine we’re on. That’s why Dr Tan advises patients to bring along any medication that they are currently taking. This is especially crucial if you are unsure or have any questions about them. “I’ve had patients tell me that the medication they’ve got doesn’t work,” he explains. “But when I ask them which medicine, they can only tell me that it’s the white tablet, or the yellow tablet, or the green tablet. When you bring along your medication, we can advise you better.”
What you can do to prevent or manage back pain
Observe the right posture
Most of us tend to slouch in front of the telly or computer, or when reading. But bad posture like this can ultimately result in back pain. So make sure you observe the right posture when doing the following:
When carrying heavy goods…
Make sure the item you are carrying is close to you, so its centre of gravity is closer to your spine.
When lifting heavy goods…
Always bend your knees, and not your back.
When carrying a backpack…
Be sure to sling on both straps instead of leaving one strap dangling.
Adopt a healthy diet. Keeping to a healthy diet – and healthy weight – helps.
Dr Tan points out that extra body weight may strain your joints during movement or rest, and aggravate your back. Which is why it’s important to eat right and exercise regularly to maintain a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI).
This reduces the load and stress on your back, preventing future injuries.
Dr Tan also suggests doing exercises to keep your back flexible. Some patients derive benefits from practising yoga and pilates, within reasonable limits. You can also try stationary exercises like a cycling station. If that’s a challenge, try a stroll.
DID YOU KNOW? Contrary to popular belief, lying around in bed is the last thing you should do if you are actually suffering from back pain. Dr Tan explains: “Prolonged bed rest is harmful to your back because your muscles will become lazy. And when this happens, you are opening the door to long-term problems.”
About the Pain Management Centre
The SGH Pain Management Centre is the first and largest in Singapore to serve patients with chronic, disabling disorders. Staffed by a team of specialists, nurses, physiotherapists and psychologists, the centre helps patients restore function and manage chronic pain through a multi-pronged, multi-disciplinary approach.
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