3 Exercises to Help Relieve Back Pain
Home Care for Back Pain
Lower back pain will usually go away with home treatment. With so many over-the-counter aids available for backaches, here's how to choose wisely.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Lower back pain is a common complaint — in fact, it's the fifth most common reason that people see a doctor. But experts say that many cases of back pain don't need a physician's care.
"The vast majority of people who have acute lower back pain get better on their own, no matter what they do, but there are some things you can do at home to help," says R. Douglas Orr, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and spine specialist at the Center for Spine Health at the Cleveland Clinic.
First Aid for Backaches
"If you really strain your back, there is some evidence using a cold pack in the first 48 hours may help healing somewhat," says Dr. Orr. But, he adds, studies show that neither heat nor cold penetrates very deeply into back muscles. “I recommend using whatever seems to work best. You might want to go with heat in the winter and cold in the summer."
Here are other back pain treatment dos and don’ts:
- Back pain should be treated like any other muscle pain — with gentle massage and exercise. "If you had a sore calf muscle, you would stretch it and massage it," says Orr. "Back pain is no different."
- Try an over-the-counter pain reliever that also blocks swelling. "Anti-inflammatory pain relievers like ibuprofen or naproxen work well for back pain," says Orr.
- Massage the area with an over-the-counter muscle pain-relieving cream, gel, or ointment.
- Don’t use a wraparound back support or corset. "These types of supports are always bad — they just make your back muscles weaker and your pain worse," cautions Orr.
When your back hurts, you might be tempted to just get into bed or lie on the couch — but that's a big mistake. "Bed rest is bad for almost any type of back pain," Orr says. "Staying in bed just makes your back muscles weaker and increases your pain. The more pain you have and the more you rest, the longer it takes to get better."
Gentle aerobic exercises like swimming and walking are best for early back pain, and back-strengthening exercises are best for chronic back pain and back pain prevention. If you have serious back problems, ask your doctor or physical therapist to help you pick out the best exercises.
Watch Those Ergonomics
Proper ergonomics for lower back pain means not putting your body in a position that makes the pain worse. "If you are sitting at a desk or riding in a car, you need to sit up straight and take frequent breaks to move around and stretch," Orr advises. "If back pain starts to get worse after 30 minutes of sitting, set a timer and start moving and stretching every 20 minutes."
Other ergonomic tips include:
- Sleep on a mattress that gives you the right amount of support. "This varies from person to person," says Orr. "If you are getting a good night's sleep and not waking up from pain, you probably have the right support."
- Make sure your sitting areas allow you to have good posture and don't cause you to lean forward, slouch, or strain.
- Avoid any heavy lifting, especially with a bent back.
- Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.
Back Pain: When to Call Your Doctor
"Any back pain that lasts longer than three weeks should be checked by your doctor," says Orr.
Be aware of these other signs of serious back pain:
- Severe back pain after a fall or injury
- Lower back pain that causes muscle weakness in the legs
- Severe back pain with numbness or tingling
- Lower back pain with difficulty passing urine
But in general, if you have lower back pain, don't panic. Unless you have any of the back pain warning signs, keep moving, use some heat or cold, stretch, take some OTC pain meds, and in most cases you will be back to normal in a few days.
Video: 60-Second Back Pain Fixes
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