Caring for Your Back

Back pain products are one way people try to improve their posture and/or protect their backs. A variety of back pain products are available in orthopedic-supply stores and catalogs, including backrests, special pillows, and other devices. (Certain back pain products, especially those that immobilize the spine, should be prescribed by your doctor or other qualified practitioner and must be specially fitted.)

Choosing an off-the-shelf back pain product is largely a matter of personal preference and comfort. There is no scientific research showing, for instance, that a lumbar roll is better than a larger backrest, or vice versa. In fact, there is a great deal of disagreement among back experts (such as orthopedists, physical therapists, chiropractors and back pain product designers) about what’s best for backs in general. Since backaches tend to be idiosyncratic, no single back pain product will work for everyone, and for some backache sufferers no device will help.


Sitting actually puts more pressure on your spinal disks than standing; slumping or hunching over in a chair is particularly straining. A chair that supports your lower back is essential. Backrests can also help encourage good sitting posture, especially when a chair is not adjustable. Backrests come in many sizes and shapes. Some contoured models are made for use in cars; others are inflatable and can be conveniently taken into planes, trains, or theaters.

Lumbar Rolls

These cylindrical foam pillows (four to five inches in diameter) are placed directly in the small of your back for support when seated. Many have straps for attaching to a chair.

Seat Wedges

When placed on a seat, one of these fabric-covered pieces of foam can tilt you forward and prevent you from sinking into an unsupportive chair. You can also place a seat wedge behind your back to adjust the angle of a chair’s backrest.

Neck Supports

These pillows wrap around the neck and thus help keep your head upright and your cervical disks properly aligned. There are inflatable models.

Slant Boards

These angled boards, when placed on desks, make reading and writing more comfortable. Most boards are adjustable. They help prevent neck strain and slouching posture.


Bad sleeping position is a common cause of aches and pains. If you have a stiff neck or shoulder most mornings, try a different pillow. New pillows can be expensive, and no one pillow is going to answer everybody’s needs. Ideally, your neck should be straight most of the night. Some foam pillows are too high and firm, or too bouncy. Some down pillows are too soft and flat. If you generally sleep on your back or side, you might benefit from a cervical roll, a small round pillow for neck support. This can be used by itself or in addition to your regular pillow.

If your mattress is very firm and you sleep on your side, you may need a thicker pillow than you would on a mattress that allows your shoulder to sink into it. If you sleep on your stomach most of the night, try a soft, oversize pillow that goes under your chest but supports your head and neck. Try sleeping with different pillows or combinations of pillows. Or simply try a rolled-up towel as a cervical pillow. Some people prefer no pillow at all.

Bed Wedges

These help you stay comfortable while reading or watching TV in bed. You can also use them to elevate your knees to relieve pressure on your lower back if you sleep on your back.

Bed Boards

You can firm up a sagging mattress (a frequent contributor to low-back pain) by placing a board between it and the box spring. Lightweight folding models are available for travel.


The Complete Home Wellness Handbook

John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 01 Sep 2011

Last Modified: 01 Sep 2011