What to Do About Back Pain When You Can’t See Your Doctor

Stay-at-home orders often mean you can’t see your ortho or neurosurgeon for back pain, but you still have options. Here’s what to do instead.

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Back pain can flare at the most inconvenient times – like when there’s a statewide stay-at-home order. Or when your doctor or chiropractor limits in-person visits to emergencies and surgeries.

Back pain can't see doctorWhat do you do when your back hurts but you can't see a doctor? Our experts have some tips.

What should you do when you want to see a doctor about your back pain, but you can’t go into the office?

You already have a variety of tools at your fingertips that can provide some relief. “There’s an armamentarium of things at your house,” says neurosurgeon Mark R. McLaughlin, MD,  founder of the Princeton Brain, Spine and Sports Medicine in New Jersey. “Ice is a great reliver of pain. Hot baths and microwavable hot packs can help. Over-the-counter Motrin is one of the best medicines for a non-traumatic back pain flare-up.”

Beyond these, you may have even more options for back pain relief than you realize.

Try Telemedicine

Some find it hard to believe that a virtual visit can work for orthopedic issues. On a video call, your doctor can’t press on your sore spots or fully measure your range of motion or strength.

Don’t let that stop you from scheduling a virtual visit. “Telemedicine, even in the absence of a physical examination, can be very beneficial,” says orthopedic spine surgeon Dwight S. Tyndall, MD, founder of DrSpine.com. “Your doctor can begin the process of ordering additional tests, such as an MRI or X-ray. You may also get a prescription for medications that are stronger than over-the-counter pain relievers.”


TelemedicineDon't discount telemedicine if you can't get an in-person appointment.

Even if you have tolerable, ongoing back pain – the kind that doesn’t need strong medicine or imaging tests – don’t skip your orthopedic visit just because you can’t see your doc in person. With telemedicine, your doctor can still give you advice, order medication refills, and talk about the risks and benefits of treatments you may want to try on your own.

Get Serious About Physical Therapy

If you have chronic low back pain, chances are your doctor prescribed physical therapy (PT) at some point. Now’s the time to recommit to those PT exercises, especially if you’re experiencing a back-pain flare. “In the context of low-back pain without any neurological problems, a stretching and exercise program is what most people need,” says Dr. Tyndall.

His advice is backed by numerous studies that point to the same conclusion: Low back pain is often overtreated with surgery and medications, when physical therapy can be just as effective with much less risk.

If you’re an established PT patient, you may even be able to get help and advice on your PT moves without leaving your house. Find out if your physical therapist offers these or other options:

Patient portal communication (e-visits).  Your physical therapist uploads illustrated handouts that describe how to do various exercises.

Remote evaluation. You submit a picture or video of your moves for personalized feedback, which your physical therapist provides within a reasonable time frame.

Get Moving 

“There’s very good evidence that being as active as you can be is better than resting in bed or resting in a chair,” says Dr. McLaughlin. “Moving increases the blood flow to the muscles, which can help muscle spasms [and other issues].” 

Clinical practice guidelines don’t offer clear guidance about the type of exercise that’s best for back pain. The following are widely recommended because multiple studies have proven some benefit, according to recently published research in the journal Pain and Therapy.

Pilates: Pilates focuses on controlled movement, breathing, and stretching. A review of 23 studies found it can be an effective approach to reduce back pain and related disability. Check out beginner Pilates videos to get started but be sure to skip any move that causes new pain or worsens existing pain.


PilatesPilates, with or without equipment, can be a great way to stretch your back and ease your back pain when you can't get to the doctor.

Yoga: A large review of studies found that yoga may help improve mobility and decrease pain. That review, however, also found some people had more low-back pain after yoga. If you’re new to the practice, seek out gentle yoga or restorative yoga.

Walking: Going for a walk is simple, accessible, and good for your back. Studies have shown that walking can be as effective as other non-drug interventions to decrease pain and disability in chronic low-back pain. 

Dr. McLaughlin adds that simple moves can reduce pain as well. These include:

  • Self-massage with a tennis ball
  • Stretches that feel good to you
  • The McKenzie method (gentle stretching exercises widely available on the internet)

These strategies can be go-to methods for relief of existing back-pain when you can’t see a doctor. For recent trauma, such as a fall down the stairs, Dr. McLaughlin says it’s best to have a visit with your doctor first.


Updated on: 05/27/20
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