Back pain can be a powerful thing. 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.
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.