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5 Ways to Manage Back Pain

How to Treat Occasional Bouts of Low Back Pain

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Low back pain is incredibly common. But what do you do once it starts? Here are 5 ways to manage those occasional bouts of back pain in your lumbar spine.

woman with low back pain

Important Note:  This article is for people who are experiencing mild low back pain.  For example, if you work up with back pain or if you overdid it at the gym yesterday and now have muscle strain pain, this article is for you.  If you've had low back pain for several days and it's interfering with your daily life, please contact your doctor.

  1. Rest (but just a little). If your back hurts, take a rest. Lie down and avoid overusing your back muscles for a while. This doesn't mean stay in bed for a week. In fact, too much rest can make your back pain worse. After a short break, get up, move around, and stretch. You'll find it actually helps reduce that nagging backache.
  2. Try medications. There are a wide variety of medications to choose from to treat back pain. Some medications relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and relax muscle spasms. Many are available over-the-counter at your local pharmacy. Prescription medications, on the other hand, require a doctor's prescription. Some medications you can try for back pain: acetaminophen (eg, Tylenol), non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (eg, aspirin, ibuprofen), and COX-2 inhibitors (eg, Celebrex).
  3. Try cold/heat therapy. Cold therapy can help reduce inflammation, muscle spasm, and pain. Cold therapy may be recommended immediately following a sprain or strain. Apply cold to your back using cold packs, ice cubes, iced towels/compresses, or take a cool bath.

    Heat can also be used to ease muscle tension. Apply heat to your aching back by using a hot compress, a dry or moist heating pad, or hydrotherapy (hot bath). Heat therapy can help decrease muscle spasms, relax tense muscles, relieve pain, and can increase range of motion.

    A good general rule if you are unsure whether heat or cold would be better: Ask yourself, "Does it make my back feel better when I apply it?" If you feel better, then it is working. Remember, never apply cold or heat/hot therapies directly onto your skin. Wrap it in a towel first.

  4. Get a massage. Massage is a popular therapy that can help relieve muscle tension, spasms, inflammation, aches, stiffness, and pain. It can also help improve circulation, flexibility, and range of motion. Massage can be administered by a professional (massage therapist) or you can give yourself a mini-massage using hand-held massagers that can help increase blood flow and relieve pain.
  5. See your doctor. The most important thing to remember about periodic bouts of back pain is that if they occur more  frequently, increase in duration (more than a few days), or the pain starts to interfere with your usual activities, it's time to see your doctor. It could be more than just a minor strain.

The good news is that most lower back problems can be treated with non-surgical treatments. Back pain that goes untreated can progressively get worse, so it's a good idea to deal with your back pain now.  You don't want your little bout of low back pain to develop into a chronic pain.

Updated on: 02/01/13
Brian R. Subach, MD
In the above article by Dr. Orr, one of the most common medical questions is addressed. Quite simply, how does one deal with the onset of acute low back pain? The problem affects millions of Americans each year and raises even more questions. Heat or ice on my back? Exercise or bedrest? Anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants? This article describes standard interventions which form the basis of our initial decision-making. The emphasis is appropriately on conservative management, but do not hesitate to seek the advice of a spinal specialist.
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