Back pain – What you need to know

back pain graphic

Today’s post is all about back pain.

First, we’re having a look at some statistics on back pain, both nationally and internationally. Then we’re looking at some things that cause back pain and some common treatments that people use. We’ll also look at ways your mattress and pillows might be influencing your back, and lastly, I’ll give you some tips on how to choose the perfect mattress.


Let’s dive right in!

What does the statistics say?

According to the Global Burden of Disease 2010, pain in the lower back is the leading cause of disability worldwide. It is also the most common musculoskeletal condition. Health24 claims that back pain economically costs more than any other disease worldwide. This great economic expense is caused by the fact that lower back pain accounts for a large amount of sick-days and disability in workers.

There is a general anecdotal assumption that back pain is less prevalent in Africa than in comparatively more developed countries. An in-depth study done by faculty members of the Stellenbosch University and the University of South Australia found that the prevalence in back pain may in fact be comparable to that reported in research done internationally.

In South Africa specifically, about 80% of the population will experience back pain at some point during their lives, and 60-75% will suffer recurrence of the problem.

An interesting statistic is that back pain is slightly more prevalent in women than in men. A study done in America found that 30.2% of females suffer from it, compared to 26.4% of males. They also found that 50% of women will struggle with significant back pain while pregnant.

What causes back pain?

back pain graphic

The back is one of the most complex structures in your body. It consists of bones, joints, ligaments and muscles. In the center is a flexible bone column, called the spine. The spine, in turn, consists of thirty-three vertebrae, interspaced by cartilaginous cushions called intervertebral discs. These act as shock absorbers. The joints between the vertebrae are called facet joints and they guide spinal movement.

The complexity of the back makes it rather easy to sustain an injury. Muscles can be strained, ligaments sprained, joints irritated, or the intervertebral discs ruptured.

Sports injuries often cause significant back pain, while other things, such as poor posture and inactivity can also cause injury. Increased body weight or obesity, especially around the midriff area, can cause back pain as well.

The largest amount of back pain, however, might be caused by spending too much time sitting down. Office workers with a poor desk setup are at risk of suffering from prolonged back pain. If your job involves lots of desk time, it is highly recommended that you invest in a chair that offers proper support for your back.

Some more conditions that might cause back pain include:

Disc degeneration

Disc degeneration is also called degenerative disc disease. This disease occurs when the structural and functional integrity of the disc is compromised. Because the intervertebral discs do not have their own blood supply, they cannot heal themselves like the other parts of your body. This causes severe lower back pain, that could spread to the hips and legs and even cause difficulty walking in the most severe cases.


Osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative joint disease. This condition occurs when the cartilage between the joints breaks down. Symptoms include stiffness (especially in the morning), swollen joints (especially after activity), and pain.


Osteoporosis is a condition that causes your bones to become significantly more porous and brittle. This condition doesn’t have any visible symptoms until the bone becomes so brittle that a fracture occurs.


This condition is caused by the irritation of the sciatic nerve, sometimes by a herniated disc. This nerve is the largest in the body. It runs from nerve roots in the spinal cord and extends through your butt to send nerve endings down into your lower limbs. Symptoms of sciatic nerve pain include a burning sensation, numbness or pain from the lower back and upper buttock to the thigh and back of the leg.


Scoliosis is a condition where the spine curves sideways out of its natural position. Doctors consider any curve of more than 10 degrees a spine displacement. There are two types of scoliosis. Nonstructural scoliosis is when the spine looks curved, but operates normally. If you have frequent muscle spasms it can contort your spine in this way. Another cause might be inflammation of the intestines, or if you have lopsided legs. This type of scoliosis usual disappears when the underlying cause is treated. Structural scoliosis is when the curve of the spine is rigid and permanent and cannot be reversed. This is caused by conditions such as cerebral palsy, tumors, genetic disorders, birth defects or muscular dystrophy.

Slipped disc

A slipped disc is also called a herniated or bulging disc. While the disc does not actually ‘slip’, the term means that the disc splits or bulges, causing the jelly-like substance inside the disk to protrude into the surrounding tissue. This protrusion can place pressure on the spinal cord, causing feelings of numbness or pain. However, many people suffering from a herniated disc may have no pain, and a majority of those suffering from this disease do not need to have surgery to fix the problem.

How is back pain commonly treated?

back pain pills

Please pay a visit to your doctor if your back pain persists. If a more serious disease is causing your back pain, it is better to get in contact with a specialist sooner rather than later. If diagnosed in time, many back problems can be solved without the need of a traumatic operation. While different types of back pain require different types of care from medical professionals, here are a few common treatments.

Many people find relief from back pain by resorting to pain medication. Pain pills offers some temporary relief, as well as topically applied medication, like Icey Hot. The success of such a treatment depends on the severity of your problem.

Using hot and cold packs can also give you some temporary pain relief.

Physical therapy, under the care and instruction of a trained physiotherapist, can also help a great deal, and even work towards healing your problem. Treatment might include massaging, exercises, needles or bioelectric shock treatment.

Chiropractic treatment for back pain has seen some debate, but many people find that visiting a chiropractor offers excellent relief for back pain. Chiropractors use the science of spine manipulation to relieve pressure and muscle spasms in your back.

Another solution, of course, might be to look at the way you are sleeping. Choosing the right bed and mattress, as well as discovering the best position to lie in when you sleep, could do wonders for your back problems.

Can the way I sleep cause back pain?

back pain woman sleeping

Most medical professionals will give you the following advice:

Don’t sleep on your stomach. Ever.

Sleeping on your stomach causes your lower back to compress for the duration of the night. This can cause severe pain and muscle spasms. Furthermore, sleeping on your stomach also causes your neck to twist to an extreme range while you sleep, which can cause neck problems.

Another position to avoid is lying half on your stomach, half on your side, with you one leg hiked up. This causes your pelvis to tilt out of shape the whole night long, and can cause stiffness and imbalance in your muscles.

As for the last two options, there are some differences in opinion as to which one is the best.

Some people consider lying on your back to be the best option, because it offers the most support for your spine. Other people warns that sleeping with a pillow while lying on your back can force your neck into an unnatural angle, and your legs might flop out to the side and put unnecessary strain on your hip sockets.

Lying on your side also has its merits, especially if you keep your legs strictly together and on top of each other. Your pelvis is well-situated when in this position, and if you choose a pillow of the correct height you should feel no strain on your neck. However, some people find it impossible to sleep on their sides without lifting one of their arms above their heads. This causes immense strain on the shoulders. It is also easy to slip into a more dangerous position, like lying on your stomach, during the night.

How does my bed affect my back?

back pain bed

It stands to reason that the place where you lie down for approximately one third of your life will have a huge impact on your spine health.

Here are some things to check out for when choosing a mattress and pillows:

Make sure your bed isn’t too soft

If your mattress is too soft it won’t support your back adequately. Sagging causes your spine to slip into a distorted position, which can cause pain. Your mattress can also compress over time from use. It is usually best to replace your bed every 8-10 years.

Make sure your bed isn’t too firm

In the past, doctors have consistently recommended that patients with back pain get their night’s rest on a very firm mattress. However, a recent study have shown that most back pain sufferers actually get more relief when sleeping on a slightly more pliable mattress. If your mattress is too firm it restricts the natural curve of your spine, pushes into your pressure points and can give you just as much discomfort as a mattress that is too soft.

Get the perfect pillow

Just like your mattress, your pillow also has to be the right consistency. If it is too soft or too thin, it lets your neck droop to an uncomfortably low angle. If too firm or too thick, it pushes your neck up and backwards into an uncomfortable arch.

Consider putting a pillow under your knees

If you prefer sleeping on your side, you can also put a pillow between your legs. This puts your hips and lower back in a very stable, comfortable position, and this is recommended by many doctors.

If you prefer sleeping on your back, putting a pillow beneath your knees can take a lot of the strain off your lower back, and can help you get a better night’s sleep. While some people argue that this can cause your hamstrings to shorten and give you even more problems in the long run, it is certainly a temporary way to relieve some of your pain.

In the end however, it is up to you to choose the mattress and pillow that you find the most comfortable.

How do I choose the right mattress?

back pain woman sleeping

First let’s cover some of the main features you need to consider when buying a mattress.

Springs and coils provides the support necessary for your back. The coils differ in thickness and density, and the firmness of the mattress usually differs correspondingly. A mattress with a larger amount of coils inside usually tend to be of a better quality.

The mattress padding is necessary for comfort. The quality of the padding naturally also influences the quality of the mattress. High quality padding usually kicks up the price of the mattress somewhat, but many people find that it is worth the extra money

The ticking is the outer layer of the mattress, usually consisting of cotton-polyester or plain polyester. It is a good idea to check the mattress quilting attaching the ticking to the top layers of padding. The quality and sturdiness of this stitching is usually a good indication of the overall quality of the mattress.

Here are also some practical tips for when you are out buying a mattress:

Wear comfortable clothes with shoes that are easy to slip off when you go mattress shopping. Don’t feel embarrassed about ‘test driving’ the bed you are thinking about buying. You should spend at least ten minutes in turn lying on your back, your sides and your stomach. Make sure the bed is long enough and wide enough to suit your needs. Try to relax (even though it might be difficult with a salesperson looking over your shoulder) so that you can feel the natural position your spine will be in when you sleep.


That’s it folks.

I hope this post has answered some of your questions about back pain.

If you’re still looking for some answers, or looking for the perfect mattress to help relieve your suffering, don’t hesitate to contact The Mattress Warehouse. We’ll help you find the best bed for your needs!