Backache – more than just a pain in the neck

Back pain is common and affects most people at some point in their life. It can have many different manifestations, some acutely painful, whilst others feel more like an ache, tension or stiffness. Back pain may have a sudden onset or can be a chronic pain, i.e. one which has lasted a long time; it can be constant or intermittent, it can stay in one place or radiate to other areas. Sometimes, the pain may spread into arms, hands, legs and feet. Other symptoms which have been known to accompany back pain are a sensation of general weakness, numbness or tingling. Back pain is one of humanity's most frequent complaints and certainly something expatriates with no international health insurance should be aware of. In the USA acute lumbago or lower back pain is the fifth most common reason for a visit to the doctor. About nine out of ten adults experience back pain at some point in their life and five out of ten working adults have back pain every year. In the UK, we seem to suffer more.

Back pain will affect as many as four out of five people in the UK and be the cause of 4.5 million days off work a year, according to some estimates. Back pain has a wide range of causes, some as mundane as simply bending, sitting awkwardly, or lifting incorrectly. Office workers who have a poor posture and spend prolonged periods working at desktop computers can also suffer significant outbreaks of pain, if for example the height of their desk or chair is poorly set up or if they are regularly sitting awkwardly. Back pain is not generally caused by a serious disease and, in most cases, gets better within 12 weeks. Advice on treatment has changed recently, as doctors have begun to understand more about the problem. Now the advice is to try to remain as active as possible and continue with daily activities. In the past, doctors advised rest for back pain, but most experts now agree that being inactive for long periods is actually bad for your back. In fact, moderate activity, such as walking or doing everyday tasks, will help recovery.

Regular exercise, such as swimming, is an excellent way of preventing back pain. If the pain becomes long lasting, other treatments may be needed, and in any event, if the back pain has lasted for more than six weeks, a doctor should have been seen. At that point they may prescribe a combination of painkillers and exercise classes or manual therapy. What might come as a surprise to many, though, is just how expensive back pain can be to treat for expatriates without international private health insurance who are living and working abroad. Chronic back pain is likely to require several doctor visits, x-rays and it may also involve length periods of physiotherapy and medication.

If the complaint is linked to any form of spinal degeneration or disc problems, then treatment can be complex and costly. Debbie Purser, CEO, April International UK, comments “Back pain is certainly a condition which many feel they can treat themselves and in many cases that is true. However, where the condition becomes chronic or complicated, a higher level of medical intervention may become necessary and this can be costly. A 50 year old client of ours in Hong Kong for example has incurred total treatment costs of over £9,000 to date. Because our policies also cover chronic care, costs are likely to be ongoing.