Prevention is better than cure and early intervention infinitely preferable to living with chronic back pain.
Bad back? Sore neck? Work stress, frequent flights and long hours spent poring over spreadsheets have caused a back pain epidemic among the nation’s executives. Lower back pain affects around a third of the UK adult population, costing the NHS an estimated £1.5bn per year.
While there is no one principal cause of back pain, stress is a major culprit. Anxiety can drastically increase muscle tension, leading to pain in both the upper and lower back. Being under pressure makes the shoulders go up, the posture become hunched and the back curve into an uncomfortable C-shape, straining the muscles.
And technology is often a contributing factor to our poor posture. “Working on laptops, tablets and other mobile devices causes the head to tip forwards and that puts a strain on the back,” says Mia Lederman, a registered osteopath and founding director of Living In Flowmotion, a company that works with businesses to change their work habits.
The human body isn’t evolved to spend hours sitting still and carrying out repetitive tasks; we’re supposed to be moving around. Hours spent travelling, whether it’s a transatlantic flight or a long commute, deepen the problem.
Common causes of sickness absence include musculoskeletal conditions such as lower back pain and ‘work-relevant upper limb disorders’ like repetitive strain injury, which can cause discomfort in the arms, wrists, fingers, neck and shoulders.
Of course, your work life can not only cause health problems but also exacerbate the ones you already have. Putting your back out shifting furniture or overdoing it on the rowing machine could be the start of a long-term problem if the working day is spent sedentary and slouching at a desk.
Yet despite the wide-ranging and costly impacts of the problem, it’s one that so often gets ignored. Seven in 10 Britons have lived with neck pain or back twinges for more than a decade.
Consulting a professional for an assessment is essential; a trial in Madrid found that treating people within a week of the onset of back pain reduced sickness absence by 40 per cent, slashing the risk of them developing other serious conditions and significantly reducing sick pay bills.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommendation for lower back pain is manual treatment, such as osteopathy or chiropractic manipulation – although for more severe, longer-term problems go for the Alexander Technique (lessons in how to improve posture and movement for long-term benefit): “It’s very well evidenced as effective for persistent, intractable back and neck pain,” says Al-Kashi.
And lifestyle changes will make all the difference: “Switch from a passive relationship with health to a proactive one where you identify and target the factors that feed and perpetuate your pain cycle, with professional help. This means dealing with stress and anxiety, insomnia, activity levels, and sedentary behaviour”.
Indeed, moving more is key. Get up and move around for at least two minutes every half an hour to boost circulation and help the healing process of your back muscles, says Lederman.