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Caring for your back

Most of us will suffer back pain at some stage of our lives. But as a carer, you're even more likely to be affected.

Lifting the person you care for and helping them dress or move around can all place a strain on your back. However, knowing how to protect your back can help to keep it in good shape.


Training

If you are regularly having to lift the person you care for, or help them in and out of bed, you may find that this can put extra strain on your back. Your local council, or local carers' organisation, should be able to tell you about training opportunities in how to lift and move more safely to reduce the risk of harming your back.

Alternatively, your district nurse may be able to show you ways to lift and move more safely. Ask your GP or practice manager for more information.

You may be able to get more direct, practical help. If you have not had one, ask your local council for a carer’s assessment. This will look at your needs as a carer, and is a chance for you to talk about the kind of help you need. This could include helping the person you care for to have a bath, get up in the morning or go to bed.

You may also be able to have your home, or the home of the person you care for, adapted, or have equipment that will help you and them. You can ask your GP to refer you for an occupational therapy assessment. You will get advice and perhaps alterations to your house or equipment to help you.

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Practical help

Improve your posture

Poor posture can put you at increased risk of back problems by putting extra strain on your back. This can affect your muscles, ligaments, tendons and vertebrae, and in the long term, can cause painful problems such as muscle, joint and disc damage, and constricted vessels and nerves.

Just being aware of how you are sitting and standing can greatly improve your posture. You should stand upright with your head facing forward and your back straight. And when sitting, make sure you are upright, with your knees and hips level and your feet flat on the floor or on a footstool. Don't hunch your shoulders or slump in your chair. When sitting down for long periods of time, be sure to keep your back well supported using the back of your chair.

Keep active

Swimming, yoga, pilates, walking, running and cycling can all help to strengthen your back. If you don't have time to do a regular sport, simple changes to your daily activities can really make a difference - walking instead of using the car for short journeys, cycling to the shops, taking the stairs instead of the lift or getting off the bus a stop earlier than you usually do.

If it's been a long time since you've exercised, or if you're thinking about increasing the amount of exercise you do, discuss it with your GP first, especially if you have any health problems.

If you already have back problems it doesn't need to stop you from being active altogether. Exercises which focus on flexibility, such as yoga or tai-chi might be beneficial – but check with your GP first. These tips may also help reduce your discomfort:

  • if you’re overweight, try to lose some weight
  • try not to make sudden movements
  • wear flat shoes, with cushioned soles, as this can reduce the stress on your back.
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Treatment

There are two types of back pain: acute back pain, which comes on suddenly and lasts less than three months; and chronic back pain, which develops slowly, lasts more than 12 weeks, and causes long-term problems.

Acute back pain can often be treated with over-the-counter drugs such as paracetamol or an anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen but some people mustn't take these if they are taking particular other types of medication or have particular health conditions, so if in doubt please consult your GP. If these do not help with the discomfort, your GP might prescribe a stronger painkiller to take alongside them, such as codeine. For severe pain, your GP might prescribe a muscle relaxant.

In some cases, a compression pack may help. Some people find it helps to alternate between hot and cold. You can buy these or, as a homemade alternative, use a hot water bottle or a pack of frozen peas wrapped in a towel. Hold the compression pack against the painful part of your back.

Chronic pack pain is often treated initially with pain killers and exercise. You should speak to your GP regarding a suitable exercise plan. Your GP may also refer you to a physiotherapist, or in certain cases, for surgery. Other options for treatment include complementary therapies, such as osteopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic.

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