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Getting back to the basics

Bono and George Clooney are amongst the most famous sufferers but back pain affects up to one-third of us at any given time. However, there is no need to suffer in silence because there are many different forms of treatment available to help sufferers.

Anne McGoldrick, medical director of the Physio Company and a physiotherapist herself, says that: "Four out of five people will at some stage of their lives get lower-back pain."

Our sedentary lifestyle is a contributor: people are working long hours sitting -- potentially at desks that are not set up for them properly.

People are most likely to suffer back pain between the ages of 35 and 55. Obesity is also a factor.

"Obesity puts unnecessary load on the spinal structure, that can cause an awful lot of problems," says McGoldrick.

Smoking can also be a factor in back pain as it can cause disc disease due to dehydration: "If you are not taking enough fluids, you can develop disc degeneration." she points out.

There are a number of things that physiotherapists can do to alleviate back pain. "The main advice would be to stay active.

"In some cases we would recommend specific types of exercise depending on the pathology. If we diagnose it as a muscular issue, we'd prescribe something like swimming, a non weight-bearing activity which can stretch out the muscles effectively," she says.

"As regards techniques we use, there is a huge range," she says. "Electrotherapy is one of the areas that we use. Basically, it is administering different types of electrical impulses and that can help to override pain message to the brain."

Physiotherapists also use manipulation, massage, and deep-tissue friction.

Anne points out that back pain does spontaneously resolve in many people within 24 to 48 hours without intervention. However, in other instances, it can be recurrent if it is not treated. "These things do come back if they are not looked after properly the first time. And usually they will get more severe with each attack."

See www.thephysiocompany.com for details about clinic locations

"A lot of back pain is due to poor posture," he says. This can include slouching in chairs, crouching over desks and things like holding the phone between the head and shoulder.

"The Alexander Technique works by helping people to identify what it is they are doing wrong, and it teaches them how to stop doing it," he says. "An office worker can spend up to 80,000 hours in their lifetime sitting at a desk. So if they are sitting with their back slouched, their shoulders hunched, and their legs crossed, it imposes a lot of strain on the body."

The Alexander Technique is essentially about being more aware of how we use our body in everyday activity.

For somebody going to Frank with back pain, the first thing he would look at is the neck and head: "A head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds, so how we carry the head around all day on top of the spine has a big impact on posture and movement. Posture and movement has a big impact on back pain.

"What people like about the Alexander Technique is that it's very, very gentle. There is no question of manipulation. It is not invasive.

"The other thing they really like is that it puts the person in control. We are teaching them how to remedy themselves," he says.

The number of lessons required depends on the individual. Frank specialises in one-to-one teaching.

Frank Kennedy's practice is on Callary Road, Mount Merrion, Co Dublin. He can be contacted by email: info@alexandertechnique.ie

Another important issue is patient education.

"People may not realise that putting their shoulder bag on the same shoulder every time is going to lead to a postural imbalance. Men don't realise that sitting with their wallet in their right pocket all the time can lead to a postural imbalance. People don't realise that standing hoovering for hours always with your right hand can lead to a postural imbalance."

People are tending to use laptops more and more -- a chiropractor would try to get people to use them like they would a normal computer, and not on their knees.

Brenda adds that, with the recession, everybody is under more stress, and people tend to hold themselves differently when under stress which would again lead to symptoms including lower-back pain.

Dr Bower is based at the Back to Health Chiropractic & Complementary Therapy Clinic, Lower Drumcondra Road, Dublin. www.backtohealth.ie