Back Problems

Should you stop work?

There's been a huge change in thinking in recent years about treating back pain. Bed rest, once widely recommended, is now to be avoided. It may be useful in certain cases for 24-48 hours but it can do more harm than good and most people are much better off carrying on with activities as far as possible, although avoiding anything too strenuous.

The box below suggests what you should do when you first develop back pain. The aim is to avoid it becoming a chronic problem. The sooner you're active, the better you will feel and the less likely that you will need to keep taking painkillers. It may seem like an impossible struggle to get back to work but the longer you are off work the lower your chances of ever returning.

    Treating an acute back problem
  • Take things easy but avoid bed rest if at all possible
  • If the pain gets worse or you have unusual symptoms such as numbness, pins and needles, problems passing urine or pain down the leg, talk to your GP immediately
  • Keep as mobile as possible, with gentle exercise (a stroll in the garden, a gentle swim)
  • Take regular simple pain killers (paracetamol, ibuprofen etc). Use alternating hot and cold packs on your pack for 15 minutes each, several times a day
  • Consider manipulation or other treatments from a physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor
  • Try to stay working or return to work as soon as possible, even if you still have some pain. If necessary talk to your employer about making temporary changes to your duties to help your recovery
Keeping your back healthy

Improve your general fitness and lose weight if you're overweight. Take regular exercise, especially to keep the muscles around the spine and abdomen strong and toned so that they act like a corset helping support the back while it does its work. Back Care has some suggestions.

Wear comfortable clothes, with shoes that cushion your spine especially if you have to stand for long periods. Avoid high heels.

Think about your working environment is your desk layout or comfortable for your back, and does your chair support the natural S shape of your spine? Avoid getting locked into one prolonged static position. There's detailed advice to help get your workstation right at

Make sure you have regular breaks. You shouldn't stay seated in one position for too long and should get up and move around for at least 5-10 minutes every hour.

Work on your posture: you might try the Alexander technique, a set of exercises which can be particularly helpful in reducing the risk of back problems.

If your job involves lifting or moving heavy weights, your employer should teach you how to lift safely and provide lifting equipment where appropriate.

  • Learn about your spine and how to look after it
  • Check your working environment - could it be kinder to your back?
  • If you develop a back problem, try to get back to work as soon as possible