Back Pain In Your 20s: What It's Like and 10 Ways To Treat It
The Debrief: What is it really like having back pain in you twenties? Here's how others cope and 10 ways to deal with yours
Artwork: Kathryn Hassan
What is it really like having back pain in you twenties? Here’s how others cope and 10 ways to deal with yours ...
There are all sorts of different back pain, caused by all sorts of different things: bad posture, injury, pregnancy (I mean obvs), your job, bad diet, incredibly athletic sex (OK, that last one is more of an ambition than a worry). A study carried out earlier this year revealed that lower back pain causes disability more than any other condition.
But what is it actually like to suffer from the kind of pain that can lead you to get trapped in a train seat, bent double like a lost prawn or asking your boyfriend to put your knickers on for you? And what can actually help?
Lower Back Pain
‘It's all IKEA’S fault!’ says Glasgow-based PHD student Hattie Kennedy. ‘I bought a new dining table and in the process of putting it together I managed to bugger my lower back. It all came to a head when I was on the train to work and realised I was trapped in my seat because I couldn’t lean forward to stand up. After some minor public transport crying I finally managed to drag myself to my feet and vowed never to sit down again.’ Hattie describes her lower back pain as, ‘Like something was being pinched in my lower back, and when I walked it felt like wading through mud.’ It left her so hampered, in fact, that she had to get her boyfriend to put her knickers and tights on for her.
For writer Rachel Preece, pregnancy has worsened an existing injury from when she broke her tailbone in the snow. ‘I’ve had the odd twinges in my back every winter – when joints stiffen up,’ she says. ‘Being pregnant has made my back pain worse and more constant. Having a burgeoning belly changed my posture, I was having to deal with extra weight and the softened ligaments meant my back just wasn't as stable as it should be.’ Rachel describes the pain as ‘a constant, dull ache at the bottom of my back that gets worse when I lie down, when I slouch, or when I walk for too long. The best relief for it seems to be sitting in my office chair at work.’
‘My back pain was brought on by a life-changing accident when I was 26,’ says writer and digital marketer Miriam Zendle. ‘I came off my bicycle at speed and it spun and hit me in the face. I sustained severe whiplash to my neck and back.’ Back pain, says Miriam, ‘is an invisible illness. It is exhausting and draining and different for everyone. Some days, a sciatic nerve might be a bit squished and I feel pain all down my leg. Sometimes – most regularly – my upper back grows tired of being hunched over a desk, and I find my concentration lapses.’ For Miriam, the oddest moment came when she found herself ‘doing squats and other silly-looking exercises in just my knickers in my physiotherapist's flat, overlooking the Battersea gyratory. I hope no one was looking – you lose a sense of boundaries after a while...’
Upper back pain
‘I was diagnosed with a severe curvature of the spine when I was 14,’ says writer and student Rosalind Jana. ‘I had surgery when I was 15. Now, at 20, I get much less in the way of back pain than I did, but it’s still something I remain aware of.’ The vocabulary of pain, argues Rosalind, is different for everyone. ‘Pre-surgery, mine was an intense ache that radiated out across my shoulders. My ribs would hurt, I’ get deep, throbbing flashes of pain that meant I found it hard to sit or move around without wanting to cry. It was like a tooth pain in my bones.’
How back pain in your twenties affects your sex life
‘Back pain has definitely affected my sex life,’ says Miriam. ‘The accident in general made me frightened of intimacy. The weak muscles in my back mean that I hold back from getting involved in things because I'm afraid of it seizing up (it has happened, though it's usually down to a fear response, so goes away). I’m also very wary of dating, because I have to have total trust to let someone touch me like that or apply pressure to my back or touch my mouth, and there are a lot of idiots out there!’
‘I literally can’t stand for long at parties, I have to double over especially when in heels, so I look like I am about to be bummed,’ says Fashion Editor and Wardrobe Mistress at The Sunday Times Style Pandora Sykes. ‘On that note,’ she continues, ‘No – it never affected my sex life.’
For Alexandra Haddow, a Picture Editor, while sex is fine, she can experience quite a lot of pain afterwards. ‘I’d have to try and get into post-coital positions that look sexy but really were just to relieve my back,’ she says. Before adding, ‘None of these are actually sexy, I essentially have to hunch or be foetal.’
‘It just requires extra communication and verbalisation of how I’m physically feeling,’ says Rosalind. ‘But I’d expect to do that regardless of the occasional bout of back pain.’ Well quite.
10 Ways To Treat Back Pain
1. See your doctor
If you’re suffering from back pain your GP should be your first stop. Not only will they be well-placed to suggest treatment and pain relief, they will also be able to check that it’s not a symptom of something serious.
‘I went to see a Physiotherapist who was amazing and gave me lots of exercises to try at the various different stages of the healing process,’ says Hattie. ‘He also recommended pilates to help strengthen my core. The GP also recommended the Arthritis UK website for exercises that are good for back pain. Some studies have also shown that walking can, in some cases, be as effective in dealing with back pain as physiotherapy – make sure your physiotherapist or GP agrees that you're up to it first, and obviously you need to be wearing proper shoes.
‘Pilates was the sole biggest thing that keeps me in shape - it's all about core strength,’ says Miriam. ‘If you have that, you have everything. Yoga can really help with flexibility – but both Pilates and yoga should be spoken about with a physiotherapist beforehand, as it will really depend on what your injury is – a slipped disc might not suit one or the other, for instance.’
‘It really helped to alleviate a lot of pain,’ says Rosalind. ‘If I’m struggling now, I still know exactly how to lie down and relax my muscles – it makes you very conscious of your body, and how it moves, and what hurts.’
‘I’ve been terrorising my boyfriend to give me daily lower back massages and they really do help,’ says Rachel.
6. A proper chair
‘Asking your boss for a desk area risk assessment is a really good idea,’ says Hattie. ‘The right chair, wrist rests, foot rests and a screen at the right height can make an enormous difference.’
7. Seeing a chiropractor
‘Within ten minutes the chiropractor can crack the right bits of spine and have me feeling almost as good as new again,’ says PR consultant Chloe Nelkin. ‘My main advice is don’t ignore it. Back pain only gets worse when it’s left alone.’ Studies have shown the efficacy of visiting a chriopractor when dealing with back pain, so it’s definitely one to consider.
8. A better balance
‘I’d say my back pain isn’t unlike that of a lot of women in their mid-late twenties who are essentially burning themselves out,’ says Pandora. ‘Lack of exercise means the muscles don’t work they way they should; bending over computers and then slumping on sofas; getting quick energy fixes through alcohol, sugar and cigarettes rather than sleep.’ Drinking more water, getting more sleep, a little regular exercise and a conscious effort to reduce you stress levels will – even if they don’t cure your back pain – make you feel better.
9. A proper bed
‘Make sure the bed you're sleeping on suits your injury or pain,’ says Miriam. ‘I have a firmer orthopaedic mattress from Benson’s that suits me perfectly.’ And avoid air beds. Like the plague.
10. Foam roller and tennis ball for back pain relief
‘A foam roller and a spiky ball or tennis ball can really help loosen up tense muscles,’ suggests Miriam. ‘And lifting/strength work at the gym, done under supervision and carefully, will build your muscle strength and help with a tired back.’
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Artwork: Kathryn Hassan
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