Low back pain

Fast facts about low back pain

  • 80% of people will experience low back pain at some point in their lives11
  • Low back pain is the most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office12
  • Low back pain is the leading cause of job-related disability and a common reason for missing work11
  • Low back pain can be moderate to severe and debilitating pain, causing anxiety12
  • Goals of treatment are to relieve pain, improve function and reduce time away from work12
  • The main types of analgesics used to treat low back pain include paracetamol, opioids (e.g. codeine) and NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen)11

Most people will experience acute low back pain during their lifetime.12 The first episode usually occurs between 20 and 40 years of age and is often the first reason for a visit to the doctor’s office as an adult.12 Pain can be moderate to severe and debilitating, causing anxiety.12 Typical symptoms include muscle ache, shooting or stabbing pain, pain that radiates down your leg (sciatica) and limited flexibility or range of motion of your back.13

Pain can be immediate as a result of an accident or by lifting something heavy, or it can develop over time due to ageing of the spine.11 A sedentary lifestyle can also lead to low back pain.11 Most back pain is mechanical in nature, i.e. sprains and strains involving muscles, tendons and ligaments (most common), slipped disc, compression of nerves (e.g. sciatica), vertebra that is out of place, etc.11


Most cases of back pain will resolve with little intervention.12 It is important to stay active, avoid bed rest as much as possible and to return to normal activities as soon as possible.12 Avoid twisting and bending.12 Steps to take to keep one’s back healthy include:11

  • Maintain a good posture
  • Don’t lift objects that are too heavy
  • Maintain a healthy diet and weight
  • Sleep on a firm surface
  • Stretch before exercise
  • Wear comfortable low-heeled shoes
  • Exercise to increase muscle strength and flexibility
  • Quit smoking

Would an analgesic be of value?

Yes, a wide range of analgesics are available to treat acute low back pain.11 Some are available over-the-counter and other need a prescription.11 The main types of analgesics used include paracetamol, opioids (e.g. codeine) and NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen).11

It's time to contact your doctor if:13

  • The pain is a result of a fall or accident
  • The pain doesn't improve with rest
  • You have unexplained weight loss
  • There is tingling or numbness in your legs
  • The pain spreads down one or both legs (especially if it spreads below the knee)
  • You have bowel or bladder problems

Frequently asked questions