Whether I file it under What Was I Thinking or Should Have Known Better the result is the same: moving a heavy piece of furniture on my own landed me with lower back pain that still hurt two weeks later.
It didn’t help that I lug around a rucksack crammed with a laptop, sheaves of documents and notebooks as well as a heavy handbag, all of which add to the pain and create additional discomfort in my neck and shoulders.
If I have been motionless for a while, whether at my desk, behind the driver’s wheel, on the sofa or when I get out of bed in the morning, I suffer excruciating twinges that have me clutching my back like a caricature old person.
Because, like it or not, even though in my head I’m still in my thirties, my back knows I’m not, and I should treat it with more respect.
Lower back pain affects one in 15
I am not alone, by any means. Lower back pain affects one in 15 of the population, and is common in working-age adults, particularly between 40 and 60. Treating all types of back pain costs the NHS more than £1,000 million a year, according to NICE figures.
Prolonged back pain results in problems such as impaired mobility, daily function and quality of life; long-term morbidity; a higher risk of being excluded socially, because you can’t work; reduced income and a dependence on sickness benefits.
The main cause of back pain
“The primary cause of back pain in older people is being older,” says osteopath Paul Clusker. “Many of the factors are purely mechanical: wear and tear, and inflammatory processes.
“Other co-factors increase the likelihood: poor body mechanics, being overweight, ergonomics, smoking, poor diet, not exercising and diseases such as osteoporosis.” Or moving a filing cabinet, as I did.
Wear and tear aside, a common cause of back pain in 50-somethings is weak core muscles, because we tend to exercise less frequently. If you have developed a middle-aged spread you are particularly vulnerable.
Strengthening your core
A strong core does not mean you have to have a six-pack, says Clusker. It means strengthening and controlling the muscles of the abdominal and lower back area. Visualise this as a set of muscles that controls an imaginary central cylinder. Keeping this in a firm position gives your body a strong base from which to perform everyday tasks.
Not having a strong core means you overload your spine and cause musculo-skeletal problems.
“Without a firm core, everything becomes a problem,” he says. “Having a firm core restores your ability to function at a higher level. It improves your sex life, enables you to fully participate in sports, walk over rough ground, do DIY.
“There isn’t one area of life where movement isn’t needed, even sleep. Stepping, reaching, pulling, pushing, lifting and bending… you use your core for all those functions.
“If someone comes to me [with lower back pain] I find the cause, and fix them by isolating the pain and inflammation and recommending rehabilitative exercises. Then I send them on their way. But you tend to see the same person again and again.
“So then you move into the next phase, which is similar to coaching. I look at their lifestyle, encourage them to lose a bit of weight (if needed), pay attention to their diet and begin an exercise regime, under my supervision, to strengthen the muscles and the core.”
How to reduce back pain
Apart from the causes already mentioned, back pain can be exacerbated by bad posture, stress, spending too long hunched over a computer and smoking.
I was surprised to learn that both smoke and nicotine cause your spine to age faster than usual. Has anyone ever read that on a cigarette packet warning?
Osteopathy, chiropractics and physiotherapy can alleviate the condition.
Drugs and acupuncture can help reduce inflammation and manage pain.
Remedial exercises and therapies such as yoga, Pilates and the Alexander Technique can help too.
It may not be possible to prevent lower back pain but we can lessen its impact by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
If you are trying to find a practitioner, ask friends for recommendations or consult an official register. “It is a criminal offence to call yourself an osteopath or a chiropractor if you are not qualified and registered,” says Clusker. “There’s a similar statutory requirement for physiotherapists.”
Download the BOA’s Osteopathy app for iPhone or Osteopathy for Android. It contains advice on back and neck pain, keeping the spine and joints healthy and avoiding ‘computer hump’, plus video exercises to improve your posture and the health of your spine.