Let’s face it back pain is extremely common – in fact the statistics report that around 70% of people experience at least one episode of lower back pain throughout their life. Many people who have experienced an episode of back pain have undoubtedly wondered how long their back pain will persist for and if it will ever go away completely! Let’s explore what we know from the research.
Before we dive in to the answer, there is an important point to consider. The length of time that someone experiences back pain is a direct result of their physical behaviour. For example, if I were to run my finger along the blade of a knife, I would expect that my finger would get damaged and bleed. I could put a plaster dressing over the cut and treat the wound accordingly, however if I continued to run my finger along the knife blade I would continue to re-injure myself. The more frequently I did it, the worse and potentially more serious the injury would become. In the same way, our physical behaviours have a direct impact on the ability of our back to recover and repair.
While every body is different, there are some consistent factors in the research that are known to produce back pain. Prolonged sitting without movement breaks or position changes, increases the likelihood of developing lower back pain. Other postures or movements associated with an increased risk of lower back pain include frequent bending (of the back) and twisting as well as compression loading on the back as a result of carrying items. Finally physical condition, specifically poor trunk muscle endurance and increased spinal mobility are also known to increase risk. The more often we adopt behaviours that are known to produce back stress, the longer our pain is likely to persist.
How long will it last?
Now back to the question at hand; how long does back pain last for and will it persist for a lifetime? While many people are told that typically back pain should settle within 6-12 weeks, this recommendation is based on isolated research identifying the normal “healing” time frame for the biological tissues in the body. There is one vital flaw in using this information to determine recovery time following injury. Everyone is different. Consider when multiple family members contract the same illness. Different family members often have variations in both illness severity and recovery time frames that may be due to differences in their immune system function, nutrition, lifestyle factors, and psychological factors.
The good news is that while back pain (if severe) can indeed persist for longer than 6-12 weeks, with the appropriate management, it is rare for the pain to persist beyond 10 years and the vast majority of people live pain free. In fact, reports of back pain are much higher in younger populations and decrease with age.