Take It Back: 11 Tips To Help Relieve Back Pain
Medically reviewed by C. Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on May 2, 2018.
1. Pain Pills: OK for the Short-Term
So you've tweaked your back? Most likely you've already taken some acetaminophen (Tylenol) or an anti-inflammatory NSAID such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Maybe your pain was so excruciating you had to visit your doctor for some stronger pain relievers or muscle relaxants.
Pain relievers are generally safe when used short-term, especially in the first few days when pain is at its worst. However, one study found only one in six people gained a benefit from taking NSAIDs and the news wasn't any better for acetaminophen either. Stomach complaints were also 2.5 times more likely in those who took NSAIDs compared with those who took inactive placebos.
What you really need is a non-drug form of treatment that will provide a long-term solution to what may turn out to be a long-term problem. And the experts agree!
2. Get Out of Bed and Off the Couch
Tempting as it is, the worst thing you can do if you have a painful back is to lie down all day.
It is true that in the past doctors did recommend bed rest for back pain. But that was before studies showed that people who remained active recovered faster. If your back is sore, even really sore, don't spend more than three days in bed.
Get moving as soon as possible. Start off with just walking around the house and progress to walking to the shops or around the block. You may have to put up with a little discomfort initially, so start slowly and gradually build up your activity level each day.
3. Heat It Up Not Cool It Down
Apart from using ice for the first 48 hours after an injury, most experts recommend only using heat for low back pain.
Heat helps dilate blood vessels increasing blood and oxygen flow to the muscles. This increases healing and flexibility and decreases stiffness. Ice can further contribute to muscle spasm, and aggravate muscular trigger points that cause the pain in the first place.
4. Get Physical With Your Physical Therapist
If you want to fast track your back's recovery, then see a physical therapist early. They can massage the area and have a number of other different modalities at their disposal (such as heat therapies, TENS units, ultrasound) that can help reduce your pain to a more manageable level. Some therapists also specialize in spinal manipulation, which helps to restore function and ease pain.
They can also give you active exercises to do at home to help stretch your back. They can look at your posture, talk about how the injury happened in the first place, and give advice on toning up certain areas of your body (such as your core) so that an injury is less likely to happen again.
5. Stick It To Pain
While you may not be crazy at the idea of up to 20 metallic needles being inserted into an already sore back, acupuncture is definitely a treatment worth considering, especially if you have muscle spasms or nerve-related pain or your pain has persisted beyond the 12-week mark.
The aim of acupuncture is to improve the energy flow around your body. This is known as your qi (pronounced "chee"). Most people only feel a slight tingling as the needle is inserted and research has shown acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and releases endorphins - the body's natural painkillers.
6. Ditch That Saggy Bed
Is your bed like a marshmallow? Does it sag when you lie down or envelop you on all sides making it difficult to roll over?
Mattresses that sag or are too soft can force you to lie in an unnatural position. Eight hours spent like that every night can stress your back and lead to back pain symptoms both in and out of bed.
Choose a mattress that is medium to firm and use pillows under your knees if you sleep on your back. Memory foam mattresses are generally more supportive than innerspring mattresses.
7. Love Your Feet. Love Your Back
If your job requires you to stand for long periods of the day, and you regularly have a sore back, take a good look at your shoes.
Unsupportive footwear can change the alignment of our knees, hips, and spine. Killer high heels put our feet on an awkward angle, placing extra stress and strain on our lower back.
Shoes should be comfortable and supportive, with a low rigid heel of no more than an inch to an inch-and-a-half. Save flip-flops or Crocs for the beach or pool. These type of shoes lack arch and ankle support and over-wearing can contribute to a bad back.
8. Manipulate That Spine Back In Order
Occasionally, the vertebrae that make up our spine separate or become slightly misaligned. This can cause nerves to be pinched and motion to be limited.
Spinal manipulation involves using physical force or high velocity thrusts to realign the misbehaving joint.
When performed by a trained, licensed chiropractor, this form of treatment is both safe and effective, but not everyone will respond to an adjustment. Don't seek chiropractic adjustments if you have severe osteoporosis, numbness, tingling or loss of strength in an arm or leg, cancer in your spine, an increased risk of stroke, or an unstable spine.
9. Relax Your Mind To Relax Your Back
Muscle tension often causes acute back pain. Learning to relax your muscles and entire body can help relieve this tension. But it takes a bit of practice.
Turn down the lights and find a quiet room where you won't be disturbed. Lie down on the floor or a yoga mat and place a pillow under your knees. Inhale deeply for 7 to 10 seconds at a time, then exhale slowly. Clear your mind of any thoughts of pain as you breathe. Start with your toes and imagine each muscle in your body relaxing one by one. Work up your body until you reach your neck and head. Repeat.
If you have a herniated disc, check with a doctor before doing any exercise or yoga routine.
10. Change Your Mindset
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that attempts to change negative thought patterns and behaviors. It's easy to feel a bit of frustration and despair when your back's been sore for a long time.
Studies have shown CBT to be effective at changing people's behavior and perception of what they can or can't do when it comes to their back. CBT can be an effective tool to help anyone learn how to better manage stressful life situations. Sometimes it's your thinking that holds you back.
11. Other Treatments For Back Pain: Stimulation, Discs, And Pods
Spinal cord stimulation (SCS) uses a mild electrical current to block nerve impulses in the spine and may be considered when medicines and other treatments have not worked.
Zeta discs are small discs made of resin that effectively hold heat (or cold). They are discrete and can be taped anywhere on your back. While they may not improve your back condition, they are usually effective at providing some pain relief.
The Backpod was developed by a physical therapist to treat upper back pain. By lying on the Backpod, tight, toughened tissue surrounding the spine can be stretched. This improves flexibility and posture and can help relieve back and neck problems.
Always check with your doctor before you use any treatments for back pain, especially if you have structural damage.
Out Of Drug-Free Options? Keep Drug Treatment Short And Simple
If you have tried several drug-free treatment options, but nothing seems to help the pain, then nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), may give you some temporary relief. The truth is, there isn't a perfect drug treatment for back pain, and evidence suggests only one in six people gain any benefit from taking NSAIDs. Previous research has questioned the usefulness of acetaminophen as well.
Muscle relaxants may provide another option, and some people may benefit from duloxetine (Cymbalta); however, duloxetine can produce severe withdrawal effects on discontinuation. Tramadol may be another short-term option but narcotic analgesics such as oxycodone should never be routinely given.
Always return to your doctor if your back pain persists for weeks on end or worsens. Surgery may also be an option.