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Back Pain: Britain’s Unseen Crisis? - Tonight

GP Dr Oscar Duke goes back to basics to investigate why so many of us have back pain in ‘Back Pain: Britain’s Unseen Crisis?’ Photo: ITV / Tonight

Nearly 80% of people have experienced lower back pain, an exclusive poll for the Tonight programme reveals today. It’s one of the most pressing health issues facing our nation - costing the economy billions of pounds every year in medical treatment, and missed work days. 40% of people who responded to our poll had taken time off work because of back pain.

So could our increasingly sedentary lifestyles be to blame? And how can we prevent it from developing? Reporter and GP Dr Oscar Duke investigates, in Tonight - Back Pain: Britain’s Unseen Crisis?

340 million people worldwide suffer from lower back pain Credit: ITV / Tonight

Getting treatment right

In the past, we all believed that the best way to treat back pain was plenty of rest and painkillers. Indeed, 46% of the people we polled thought that strong pain medication - including opioids - are an effective treatment.

But studies have now shown that strong painkillers such as opioids are not effective in treating chronic pain - and the NHS recommends against their use. However, Dr Jane Quinlan, consultant anaesthetist at the University of Oxford Hospitals Trust, reveals how opioid prescribing actually rose dramatically between 1998 and 2016. This is worrying, she says, because opioids can be dangerous - resulting in lethargy, addiction and even death if used wrongly.

Less than 1%’ of back pain sufferers need surgery, say experts. Credit: ITV / Tonight

Back pain sufferers will also sometimes resort to drastic options like steroid injections or even complicated spinal surgery. But, as Dr Oscar Duke discovers in tonight’s programme, the key to recovery may be much simpler and less evasive...

It’s time to get off that chair!

Dr Oscar Duke met author and academic Dr Vybarr Cregan-Reid, who believes that too much sitting actually weakens the muscles supporting our spines - meaning our back injures more easily.

So are we moving less? The statistics seem to indicate this: one in five of the people we polled said they sat for more than nine hours a day, and Public Health England has revealed that four in ten adults fail to walk briskly for more than ten minutes a month.

Dr Oscar Duke gets to the bones of the issue with Dr Vybarr Cregan Reid. Credit: ITV / Tonight

Modern technology has enabled us to carry out everyday chores and activities with as little effort as possible, says Vybarr. We should all be aiming to walk 10,000 steps a day to strengthen our backs.

“We need to find ways of introducing more movement throughout our day not just in short intensive bursts like we do with exercise.”

– Dr Vybarr Cregan-Reid

Standing up in the classroom?

How young do we need to start moving? Researchers at Loughborough university found that primary school children in Bradford sit for approximately 10 hours per day, and spend 70% of their waking hours sitting down. So they decided to trial some sit-stand desks at four schools - including Russell Hall Primary School. The desks were such a hit with pupils and teachers that the school kept them after the trial finished.

Walking is thought to help alleviate back pain. Credit: ITV / Tonight

A solution - the great outdoors

Katie Greenwood, from Cheshire, suffered so badly from back pain in her early twenties that she struggled to move. When her doctor advised her to get outside and increase her activity, she was nervous. But it turned out that the great outdoors worked wonders for her pain. We caught up with her at work for the Wildlife Trust to find out just how much her health had improved.

“It created a space that made me not focus on my back pain...being in a space where it wasn't all focused on back pain, and moving, was really helpful for me.”

– Katie, former back pain sufferer

If you are suffering from back pain, the NHS recommends the following:

  • Keep moving - you’re likely to recover faster
  • Exercise - our backs are stronger than we realise!
  • Take breaks - so you’ve aren’t sitting down for long periods
  • Try to relax - stress and anxiety go hand in hand with back pain
  • And see your GP if you’re still in pain after 6 to 8 weeks

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