5 Ways to Cope with an Aching Back
By Eric Requa, DO, Virtua Sports Medicine Specialist
Pain near your spine? You’re not alone. At any given time, one in four American adults has lower back pain. It’s second only to the common cold as the top reason people visit the doctor.
In some cases, you don’t necessarily have to see the doctor right away. Very often, my patients are able to resolve their back pain by taking a few simple steps.
Work toward a pain-free back with these strategies:
1. Adjust your posture.
Slouching or slumping affects your alignment, flexibility, and joint movement.
- Sit in chairs that have low back support or use a straight-backed chair with a cushion behind you to maintain your spine’s curve. Keep your knees slightly higher than your hips and your elbows close to your body.
- Stand with your ears, shoulders, and hips aligned. Hold your head level and pull your stomach in to keep your back straight. Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes. Break up standing or sitting with frequent walk breaks.
- Sleep on a firm mattress on your side, knees bent. Place a pillow between your knees if needed.
2. Tinker with temperature.
Ice or heat may reduce inflammation and ease aches. Use ice soon after back pain starts, or after you exercise. Beginning 48 hours after the onset, try a hot shower or bath, warm compress, hot water bottle, or heating pad to relax your muscles.
3. Reach for the medicine cabinet.
Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) can help reduce back pain. Other choices include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and aspirin. If you have medical conditions or are unsure if these medications are right for you, consult your physician.
4. Work it out.
You might need one to two days of rest after back pain sets in. But if you relax for too long, your muscles can get tight or weaken, hampering your recovery. If your back pain has flared up, try to stay active, focusing on gentle stretching.
Keep your back muscles strong by walking around at least a few minutes every hour. Yoga, tai chi, and stretching can also offer relief. Talk with your health care provider or a physical therapist about the best type of exercise for you.
5. Know when to call the doctor.
If your pain doesn’t subside with stretching, exercise, over-the-counter medications, and pain worsens, it’s time to see a physician.
We also use certain 'red flag' symptoms to determine when to seek emergency medical attention. These can include back pain along with fever, nausea, vomiting, weakness, pain that runs down past your knee, or numbness in your leg and foot. They are all warning signs of a more serious problem.
If you lose bladder or bowel control, or the pain is so intense you can’t move, seek emergency care immediately.
Updated August 17, 2020