Back pain can be a powerful thing. Powerfully painful. I’ve been lucky enough to never experience the truly debilitating side of it, but I’ve had a sore back and the occasional twinge, and I can extrapolate from there: back pain sucks.
The good news for sufferers of serious back pain is that it can usually be treated at home. In fact, do-it-yourself back pain remedies are often more effective than any drug, chiropractic manipulation, or massage. Nevertheless, I’ve included some ideas of where to look if you want or think you need professional treatment for back pain. Also, please note that the suggestions below are intended to treat acute back pain, not a chronic problem (see the difference at left).
If your back continues to hurt for more than a week without improvement even while you follow the steps below, you may have an injury you can’t care for yourself. See a doctor.
Types of Back Pain
Acute back pain is the kind most of us are familiar with. 8 or 9 out of every 10 people in the United States experience back pain at some time during their lives, but it almost always goes away in the course of a few days or a few weeks, once the muscle strain or injury that caused it heals. This is acute back pain, and even though the word “acute” may conjure images of stabbing pain, it can occupy any place on the pain spectrum, from dull aches to debilitating spasms.
Chronic back pain is defined as lasting longer than three months. Its causes are usually difficult to ascertain, and as a result it’s harder to treat than acute back pain. Fortunately for most of us, chronic back pain is relatively uncommon.
Back Pain Treatment and Prevention
Avoid causing strain or injury to your spine or back muscles. Bend at the knees, not the waist, when lifting things, even if you’re just picking up a paperclip from the floor. If you stand for long stretches of time during the day, reduce back strain by putting one foot at a time on a low stool and switching feet periodically. Or, if you sit most of the time, try not to spend the entire day in the same position. Use a chair that supports your whole back in a gentle, relaxed curve, and get up to walk around every couple of hours.
While you sleep, keep your spine supported in its gently curved natural position. A medium-firm mattress is best. If yours is too soft or too hard and you can’t afford a new bed, try modifying the one you have with a board between the box spring and mattress to increase firmness or a cushioned pad or featherbed under the sheet to add softness. You might also try to adjust your sleeping position; back sleepers get the most support, and side sleepers can keep their spines in the right position by putting a pillow between their knees.
A day or two of rest can help heal back pain. When severe back pain makes everyday activities excruciating, it’s good to take some time off from them—but not too much time. Rest gives your back a chance to repair itself and keeps you from doing it any further damage, but more than a couple days of lounging in bed usually does more harm than good. Muscles weaken surprisingly quickly when they aren’t being used, and weak muscles take longer to recover from injury. Don’t overdo it, but do try to get back to most of your regular activities after about two days of rest.
Regular exercise is extremely important for preventing back problems. It can also help relieve back pain you already have. Exercise strengthens your back muscles, making them more resistant to injury and better equipped to heal themselves when they are strained or damaged. You can do exercises specifically designed to condition the back, but aerobic exercise is especially important. A regular aerobic workout not only tones muscles but also helps you maintain or achieve a healthy weight, and less weight means less strain on the spine. Walking, swimming, and other low-impact exercises are best.
Over-the-counter medication can provide temporary back pain relief. While you wait for your back muscles to repair themselves, you may be able to reduce the pain with ibuprofen, aspirin, or another pain reliever from the NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) family. As the name suggests, these drugs can reduce inflammation in injured muscles, so they may speed the recovery process while easing your pain. They shouldn’t be used as a long-term back pain remedy, though, because they can cause gastrointestinal damage with overuse.
Professional Help for Back Pain
Massage therapy is often used on its own to treat back pain, but it’s even more effective when combined with the self-care strategies detailed above. Massage is most appropriate for treating back pain caused by stiff muscles, and it works on three levels: First, it promotes relaxation and reduces stress, which can cause muscles to tighten. Second, it improves blood circulation to help you recover more quickly from sore muscles after exercise or other strenuous activity. Finally, massage can prompt the brain to release feel-good endorphins, which provide natural pain relief.
The adjustments and manipulations performed by a chiropractor or osteopath can relieve acute back pain, and if continued on a regular basis, may even prevent the onset of chronic back pain.
If your back pain continues without improvement for more than a week, it’s probably a good idea to see a medical doctor. If there is a serious condition (a hernia, for example) underlying your back pain, a doctor can pinpoint and treat it. Or, if your pain is serious enough to hinder your daily activities, a doctor can prescribe a strong painkiller or muscle relaxant to get you through it. In most cases, back surgery is unnecessary, but if you do need it, a doctor can take care of that, too.
Natural Remedies for Back Pain
Ice and heat relieve back pain in different ways, and can be used alone or together depending on what’s causing the pain. Ice works by reducing muscle inflammation or swelling, and ice packs should be applied right away to an injured muscle. Heat relaxes tight muscles, so a heated wrap or hot shower or bath can be used on older injuries or to soothe back pain caused by tension.
Yoga is gaining popularity and respect as a treatment for back pain. Its effectiveness against back pain makes perfect sense, considering that most yoga poses were designed to align and strengthen the spine. Yoga also stretches and relaxes tight muscles, and because of its emphasis on endurance, it can leave you better equipped to handle pain.
Acupuncture is increasingly supported by science as an effective way to fight pain. The most recent research suggests that acupuncture may stimulate the brain to release pain-relieving chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and acetylcholine.
Lavender oil may help to relieve back pain caused by nervous tension. Some scientists believe it lowers bodily levels of cortisol—a hormone associated with stress. Lavender oil can be combined with other natural back pain remedies by using it in the form of a bath or massage oil.