This article was co-authored by
. Dr. Sidhu is a Chiropractor in Toronto with more than 20 years of experience. He received his DC from Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in 1994, and later completed a 3 year Certification in Rehabilitation.
There are 22 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.
Back pain can be debilitating and life altering. It can affect your ability to move, sleep and even think. There are many causes of back pain, but remember that pain levels are not always positively correlated with the degree of seriousness. In other words, minor issues (such as an irritated nerve) can sometimes generate severe short-term pain, whereas life-threatening issues (such as a tumor) sometimes lead to minimal pain. Try some common-sense home remedies and be aware of the signs and symptoms that warrant a trip to the doctor’s office.
Dealing with Bad Back Pain Yourself
Your spine is a complex collection of joints, nerves, muscles, blood vessels and connective tissue.
There are many structures that can generate pain if you move your back the wrong way or experience some trauma. Severe back pain can come on quickly, but it can sometimes go away quickly also (without any treatment whatsoever) because the body has a tremendous ability to heal itself. As such, be patient for a few hours if you experience a bout of bad back pain, avoid any strenuous activities and keep a positive attitude.
- Signs and symptoms for which you should seek immediate medical attention include: muscle weakness and/or loss of sensation in your arms or legs, loss of bladder or bowel control, high fever, sudden weight loss.
- Total bed rest is not a good idea for most types of back pain because some movement (even just brief, leisurely walks) is needed to stimulate blood flow and healing. If you are in a lot of pain, wait two to three days before resuming normal activities.
- If your back pain is exercise related, then you may be working out too aggressively or with bad form — consult with a personal trainer.
- If you think your back pain is work related, then talk to your boss about switching activities or altering your work station — such as a more supportive chair or a cushioned mat for underneath your feet.
The application of ice is an effective treatment for essentially all acute (occurring in the last 24 – 48 hours) musculoskeletal injuries, including back pain.
Cold therapy should be applied to the most painful part of your back in order to reduce the inflammation and numb the pain. Ice should be applied for 10 – 15 minutes every hour, then reduce the frequency as the pain and swelling subside.
- Compressing the ice against your back with a stretchy bandage or elastic support will also help control the inflammation.
- Always wrap ice or frozen gel packs in a thin towel in order to prevent frostbite on your skin.
- If you don’t have any ice or gel packs, then use a frozen bag of veggies from your freezer.
- Ice is not be appropriate for chronic back pain — moist heat may provide more relief.
Soaking your back in a warm Epsom salt bath can significantly reduce pain and swelling, especially if the pain is caused by muscle spasm or strain.
The magnesium in the salt helps the muscles relax. Soaking in a warm bath or applying heat directly to your back likely isn’t a good idea if you’re experiencing lots of inflammation, which is often the result of joint, ligament and nerve injuries of the back.
- Don’t make the water too hot (to prevent scalding) and don’t soak in the bath for much more than 30 minutes because the salty water will pull fluid from your body and start to dehydrate you.
- Alternatively, apply moist heat to your back pain — microwaved herbal bags work well and are often infused with aromatherapy (such as lavender) that has relaxing properties.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin can be short-term solutions to help you deal with bad pain or inflammation in your back.
Keep in mind that these medications can be hard on your stomach, kidneys and liver, so it’s best not to use them for more than 2 weeks at a stretch.
- Alternatively, you can try over-the-counter analgesics such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or muscle relaxants (such as cyclobenzaprine) for your back pain, but never take them concurrently with NSAIDs.
- Pain relieving creams and gels applied directly to your sore back are another option, especially if the pain is more muscle related. Capsaicin and menthol are natural ingredients in some creams that act to distract your brain from the pain by making your skin tingle.
Rolling on a piece of firm foam is a good way to massage your spine and potentially relieve mild-to-moderate discomfort, especially in the mid back (thoracic) region. Foam rollers are commonly used in physiotherapy, yoga and pilates.
- Pick up a foam roller at a sporting goods or big-box store — they’re very inexpensive and nearly indestructible.
- Place the foam roller on the ground, perpendicular to where you’re going to lay your body. Lie down on your back so that the foam roller is beneath your shoulders and begin to roll back and forth. Repeat as many times as necessary, although your muscles might be a little sore after the first time you use a foam roller.
Lie down on your back and place a ball between your shoulder blades. Roll around until you find a tender spot. Hold that position for at least 30 seconds, or until you feel the pain going away. Move on to other tender spots.
- Repeat this every day until the pain improves. This may be used as a preventive measure since these trigger points, most commonly known as muscle knots, have a tendency to appear again due to bad posture or overuse.
While your back pain may make you reluctant to move or exercise, stretching and strengthening your body can reduce back pain. Before starting exercise, consult with your doctor or a physical therapist about which exercises are appropriate for your specific condition.
Mattresses that are too soft or pillows that are too thick may contribute to back pain. Avoid sleeping on your stomach as it can cause your head and neck to twist in ways that aggravate back pain and it can also compress and irritate lower back joints.
The best sleeping positions for back pain are on your side (similar to the classic fetal position) or on your back with a pillow elevating your legs, which takes some pressure off the low back joints.
- Although even waterbeds can be comfortable for some people, most people seem to benefit from a firm orthopedic mattress.
- Spring mattresses typically last about eight to 10 years with constant use, depending on the weight of you and your partner.
Bad back pain can often be aggravated by improper lifting posture. When you need to lift something, make sure it is not too heavy for you to carry alone (and ask for help if it is). Keep the load close to your body, turning with your entire body instead of twisting or stretching at the waist.
- There is some disagreement about the very best way to lift a heavy load, but if you want to lift without putting stress on your back, you should squat, bending at the hips and knees but keeping your back straight, and lift from this position. This will allow you to lift with your legs and not your back.
Seeking Alternative Treatments
Chiropractors and osteopaths are spinal specialists who focus on establishing normal motion and function of the small spinal joints that connect the vertebrae, called spinal facet joints. Manual joint manipulation, also called an adjustment, can be used to unjam or reposition facet joints that are slightly misaligned, which triggers inflammation and sharp pain, particularly with movement.
- Although a single spinal adjustment can sometimes completely relieve your back pain, more than likely it will take 3-5 treatments to notice significant results. Your health insurance may not cover chiropractic care.
- Chiropractors and osteopaths also use a variety of therapies tailored more towards muscle strains, which may be more appropriate for your back issue.
- Traction techniques or stretching of your spine with an inversion table may also help your back pain. Some chiropractors have inversion tables in their offices, which allows you to turn yourself upside down in a controlled and easy way, enlisting the help of gravity to decompress your spine. Consider buying an inversion table for home use.
A strained muscle occurs when individual muscle fibers tear, which leads to pain, inflammation and some degree of guarding (muscle spasm in attempts to prevent further damage). A deep tissue massage is helpful for mild-to-moderate strains because it reduces muscle spasm, combats inflammation and promotes relaxation.
Start with a 30 minute massage, focusing on your entire spine and hips. Allow the therapist to go as deep as you can tolerate without wincing.
- Always drink lots of water immediately following a massage in order to flush out inflammatory by-products and lactic acid from your body. Failure to do so might cause a headache or mild nausea.
Acupuncture involves sticking very thin needles into specific energy points within the skin / muscle in efforts to reduce pain and inflammation.
Acupuncture for back pain can be effective, especially if it’s done when the symptoms first occur. Based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture works by releasing a variety of substances including endorphins and serotonin, which act to reduce pain.
- There is mixed scientific evidence that acupuncture is helpful in relieving chronic back pain, but there’s lots of anecdotal reports that many people find it extremely helpful.
- Acupuncture points that may provide relief to your back pain are not all located near where you feel the pain — some can be in distant areas of the body.
- Acupuncture is practiced by a variety of health professionals including some physicians, chiropractors, naturopaths, physical therapists and massage therapists — whoever you choose should be certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
- “Dry needling” is another type of therapy involving acupuncture needles, but without the Chinese traditional medical techniques. It may be helpful to relieve pain.
Stress-relieving practices like meditation, tai chi and breathing exercises have been found to help alleviate musculoskeletal pain and help prevent injuries in many people. Yoga is also great for relaxation and involves practicing specific postures or poses and helpful breathing exercises.
- Yoga poses can stretch and strengthen muscles and improve posture, although you might need to modify some poses if they aggravate your back pain.
- Try mindful meditation. Mindful meditation is a form of pain management that can be done anywhere at any time. One study found that three 20-minute meditation sessions over the course of three days not only reduced pain, it also appeared to have a lasting effect far beyond the 20 minutes spent in meditation.
Getting Medical Treatments
If diligent home care and alternative therapies are not effective for alleviating your back pain, then make an appointment with your family physician in order to consider any potentially serious spinal issues such as a herniated disc, nerve entrapment, infection (osteomyelitis), osteoporosis, stress fracture, rheumatoid arthritis or cancer.
- X-rays, bone scans, MRI, CT scan and nerve conductance studies are modalities that your doctor may use to help diagnose your back pain.
- Your doctor may also send you for a blood test to rule out rheumatoid arthritis or a spinal infection such as meningitis.
- Your doctor may refer you to medical specialists such as an orthopedist, neurologist or rheumatologist in order to better figure out your back condition.
If your back pain is recurring (chronic) and caused by weak spinal muscles, poor posture or degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis, then you need to consider some form of rehabilitation. A physical therapist can show you specific and tailored stretches and strengthening exercises for your back.
Physiotherapy is usually required 2-3x per week for 4-8 weeks to positively impact chronic back problems.
- If need be, a physiotherapist can treat your sore back muscles with electrotherapy such as therapeutic ultrasound or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).
- Good strengthening exercises for your back include swimming, rowing and back extensions, but make sure your pain is under control first.
An injection of steroid medication near or into spinal joints, muscles, tendons or ligaments can quickly reduce inflammation and pain, and allow normal movement of your back again.
Corticosteroids are hormones that display powerful anti-inflammatory properties. The most common preparations used are prednisolone, dexamethasone and triamcinolone.
- Potential complications of corticosteroid injections include infection, bleeding, tendon weakening, local muscle atrophy and nerve irritation / damage.
- If corticosteroid injections fail to provide adequate resolution for your back pain, then as a last resort, surgery should be explored.
Why is it important to go see a doctor when I have a sore back?
Seeing a doctor is important because you may need to find out the cause of the pain and whether it needs to be treated in some way.
How do I get rid of a shoulder ache?
Take a long nice, hot bath with Epsom salts. Put bubbles in the tub, light your favorite candle, put on relaxing music, turn off the lights, and lie in for about 5-10 minutes. After, have someone give you a good massage and then put aloe on your shoulders.
I went jumping with my kids in a trampoline park and my back hurts. What can I do?
There are a few things you can do. Apply a heating pad or cloth soaked in hot water to the area to soothe pain. Have someone massage it for you. Take painkillers. In any case, you should see your doctor to make sure it’s not a serious injury.
Can kids get back pain if they play sports or go sledding?
Yes, kids can get bad back pain from playing certain sports or from sledding. This could be because they are pushing themselves too far, too fast. It could also be because they are not using proper technique. Consider speaking with your child’s coach about your child’s back pain; he or she will then look carefully at what your child is doing wrong, and then help teach your child proper technique.
What can I do if the suggestions in the article don’t help me?
Get more sleep, go to the pharmacy and ask them about back-pain killers. You should consult a doctor as you never know if it is serious.
What can I do if my back suffered badly while in labor with a baby 8 months ago and I injured it while putting together a swing for him?
You should talk to your family doctor.
How do you exercise your back?
Do some back bends and swans. If that doesn’t help, you could go to a chiropractor.
How can I tell if my football injury is serious?
Ask a doctor to see if it’s serious. Or see someone who specialises in back pain.
How do I get rid of back pain that’s just below my shoulders on my left due to playing football?
Find a good back patch for pain, and look into a good topical pain medication that you can leave in your locker. The pain patches for your back will help get you to sleep during those night that the pain is too much. The topical would help with the joint and areas where it would be difficult to put a back patch on. Look into Absorbine Jr. patches and their OTC joint pain relief liquid.
Can you use normal table salt instead of epsom salts in baths? Also, are lavender bath soaks good?
Yes, table salt gets rid of foamy chemicals which form the ache. A trip to the beach can also fix it.
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- To maintain proper posture when standing, stand with your weight equally distributed over both feet and avoid locking your knees. Tighten your stomach and buttock muscles to keep your back straight. Wear supportive shoes if you’ll be standing for long periods of time; alleviate muscle fatigue by periodically resting one foot on a small footstool.
- Quit smoking because it impairs blood flow, resulting in oxygen and nutrient deprivation to spinal muscles and other tissues.
- If you sit at a desk all day and you believe your back pain is caused by this, consider getting a new chair for your desk.
- Stay fit because back pain is more common in people who display poor physical fitness.
- To maintain proper posture when sitting, choose a firm chair, preferably with armrests. Keep your upper back straight and your shoulders relaxed. A small cushion behind your lower back can be helpful in maintaining the natural curve of your lumbar spine. Keep your feet flat on the floor, using a footstool if necessary.
- See your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following signs or symptoms: quickly escalating severe back pain, loss of bladder and/or bowel control, weakness in your arms or legs, high fever, sudden unexplained weight loss.
This article was co-authored by Jasper Sidhu, DC. Dr. Sidhu is a Chiropractor in Toronto with more than 20 years of experience. He received his DC from Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in 1994, and later completed a 3 year Certification in Rehabilitation.
Categories: Back Pain
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