Back problems

Back pain is common and often starts for no obvious reason. The spine is strong and back problems are rarely due to any serious disease or damage.

Back problems can cause a range of symptoms, including:

  • stiffness
  • muscle spasms
  • hot, burning, shooting or stabbing pains in your back and sometimes into one or both of your legs or feet
  • pins and needles, numbness or, weakness likely due to nerve irritation

In many cases, new or flare-up of long-standing back problems should begin to settle within 6 weeks without the need to see a healthcare professional.

For most back pain problems, you'll not normally need an X-ray or MRI scan.

Can back pain cause problems anywhere else?

Your back problem may cause hot, burning, shooting, or stabbing pains into one or both of your legs. You may also get pins and needles. This can be due to nerve irritation.

When to get professional advice

Cauda equina syndrome

Cauda equina syndrome is a rare but serious back condition which can lead to permanent damage or disability. If you develop this condition you'll need to be seen by an emergency specialist spinal team.

Urgent advice: Phone 111 if:

  • there has been a new, significant trauma within the last 7 days, for example a fall from height or direct blow to the back

You have experienced a new onset of the following symptoms:

  • loss of feeling/pins and needles between your inner thighs or genitals
  • numbness in or around your back passage or buttocks
  • altered feeling when using toilet paper to wipe yourself
  • increasing difficulty when you try to urinate
  • increasing difficulty when you try to stop or control your flow of urine
  • loss of sensation when you pass urine
  • leaking urine or recent need to use pads
  • not knowing when your bladder is either full or empty
  • inability to stop a bowel movement or leaking
  • loss of sensation when you pass a bowel motion
  • change in ability to achieve an erection or ejaculate
  • loss sensation in genitals during sexual intercourse

Pharmacy First Scotland: Back pain treatment from your pharmacy

If you have back pain you can get advice and treatment directly from a pharmacy. Find your local pharmacy on Scotland's Service Directory.

Search for a pharmacy near you

What causes back problems?

Although most back problems start for no obvious reason, back pain can be influenced by:

  • staying in one position too long
  • lifting something awkwardly
  • a flare-up of an existing problem
  • doing more activity than you normally would

Self-help

Keeping active is an essential part of your treatment and recovery and is the single best thing you can do for your health. Exercising can really help your back and reduce the pain you feel.

Read more about keeping active.

Do

  • try to maintain your current levels of fitness – even if you have to modify what you normally do, any activity is better than none
  • try and keep your other muscles and joints strong and flexible
  • try to prevent a recurrence of the problem
  • try to aim for a healthy body weight

Don't

  • brace or hold yourself still - your back is designed to be mobile
  • sit down or rest for too long - resting in bed doesn't help back pain, and often makes it harder to get going again

If you have to sit or rest, try to change positions regularly and find one that reduces any pain in your back or legs.

It's beneficial to do specific exercises that can help in your recovery. They may be challenging at the beginning so just do what you can and try to build it up over time.

Exercises to help with back pain.

Consider your posture

Although your posture doesn’t need to be perfect, try and move often so you don't stay in the same position for too long. This will help you improve and get back to your normal activity levels.

Pain treatments

The following can help to reduce the pain:

  • pain medication - this can help you move more comfortably, which can help your recovery
  • heat or ice packs

More about taking painkillers.

Treating with ice or heat

Remember to never place ice or heat directly on your skin. Use a barrier, like a towel, to protect your skin from a burn.

How long you use ice as a treatment can depend on the painful area but generally up to 15 minutes leaving a few hours between treatments.

You should stop treating the area with ice or heat and seek advice from a medical professional if you notice an increase in redness, discolouration or blistering of the skin.

If you have any issues with circulation or sensation, you shouldn't use ice or heat as a treatment for back pain.

Stay positive

It’s easy to start worrying about all the possible things that could be wrong, but research has shown that most back pain settles with time.

Keeping as active as possible helps you to cope better and get back to your usual activities more quickly.

Work

It's recommended you stay at or return to work as quickly as possible during your recovery. You don't need to be pain and symptom-free to return to work.

Help and support

Following this advice, you should see gradual improvements over time.

You should see the biggest change in your symptoms within the first couple of weeks. Most problems should have improved within 6 weeks.

If your back problem hasn’t improved within 6 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Find out how to access MSK services in your area.

Last updated:
28 June 2022