Home Remedies to Relieve Back Pain
The great majority of backaches (less serious strains, sprains, or spasms) usually don’t require a doctor’s attention. Depending on the severity of the pain, one or more of these back pain remedies should provide relief.
- Avoid physically demanding tasks. For soreness and minor pain in the back, avoiding physically demanding activity for a few days may be sufficient.
- For mild to severe pain, lie down and rest. Reclining may relieve the pain, and it takes mechanical pressure off the stressed back during the first day or two of injury. Some people find they are helped by putting a pillow under the knees when lying down. You may be able to take pressure off your back and get relief by lying on the floor, with your hips and knees bent, and your lower legs resting on the seat of a chair. Allowing the inflamed tissue to repair itself can prevent a chronic cycle of back injury. Compared to standing, lying down reduces pressure on the lumbar disks by 70 percent, while unsupported sitting increases it by 40 percent.
- Don’t overstay your time in bed. The current trend in treating common backaches is to get people out of bed as soon as they can get up comfortably. While doctors traditionally recommended a week or two of bed rest, research has found that two days in bed are usually sufficient for run-of-the-mill backaches, while longer bed rest should be reserved only for disk problems. Moreover, shorter periods of bed rest tend to reduce the likelihood of the adverse effects associated with prolonged bed rest, such as weakening of muscles from inactivity, that can lead to further back injury. (As patients bedridden for other reasons often discover, a couple weeks of bed rest can actually produce a painful back.) It’s also a good idea to begin walking as soon as possible.
- Try over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain relievers. Nonprescription NSAIDs—aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen—will help reduce the intensity of pain and inhibit inflammation.
- Apply ice and heat. If you feel soreness in one specific area of the lower back, put an ice pack on the area to temporarily block the transmission of pain messages to the brain. Wrap the ice in a towel to avoid damaging the skin. Keep the ice on for no longer than 20 minutes at a time to avoid chilling the back muscles, which can lead to a muscle spasm. You may find that heat provides better pain relief than ice. Hot compresses applied with a hot water bottle, a heating pad (on a low or medium setting), or a towel heated in water can help relieve spasm symptoms after the first 24 hours. Keep the heat on the lower back for no longer than 30 minutes. Reapply it up to four times a day. A hot bath or shower or sitting in a hot tub will also increase blood flow to the lower back and contribute to pain relief.
- Take analgesics. When you are experiencing acute pain, take paracetamol or other painkiller drugs like diclofenac sodium.
- Take it easy. Remember, any resumption of activity must be gradual, since your back needs time to heal completely. Once the pain is gone, avoid heavy chores and sports for at least two weeks. If you wish, continue taking aspirin or other anti-inflammatories to reduce pain. However, do not use a corset or back brace unless your doctor prescribes it.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor for Back Pain
Contact your physician if the pain from backache or sciatica is severe, or if it doesn’t improve after two days. In addition, call your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms: pain, numbness, or tingling that radiates down an arm or leg; back pain that continues unabated when you’re lying down; back pain after a fall or car accident; vomiting or fever associated with back pain; or backache in an elderly person or child. Any of these may indicate a more serious problem.
Many people have found relief from acute (not chronic) back pain with chiropractors. If you have acute low-back pain and wish to consult a chiropractor or seek some other alternative treatment such as acupuncture.
What Your Doctor Will Do
On your first visit your doctor will probably just examine you and take a history. Bed rest and anti-inflammatory painkillers are often the first choice in back pain remedies. Your doctor may prescribe a stronger painkiller or may refer you to a physical therapist for a course of exercises and treatment, or to a specialist in back problems for further examination.
If you don’t get better, your doctor may need to determine whether your problem comes from a herniated disk, an inflamed piriformis muscle (which can trigger sciatica), or other causes. X-rays may be called for, along with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a diagnostic technique that uses magnetic fields and radio waves. An MRI reveals spinal architecture accurately and in much more detail than an x-ray.
Back experts urge physicians not to rush to use MRIs to diagnose patients with sciatica or uncomplicated acute low-back pain (that is, pain not due to an underlying illness or injury and not involving nerve damage or paralysis). These problems are usually self-limited, and an MRI reveals little information that helps with a prognosis.
Whatever the diagnosis, opt for the most conservative treatments—rest, exercise, painkillers, and physical therapy. Surgery may be an option in some persistent cases, but it is expensive and requires a long period of recuperation. It is also frequently unsuccessful. Before considering surgery, you should exhaust all other forms of treatment. If your doctor suggests surgery, consider a second opinion. Don’t consent to traction, which has not been shown to be beneficial for low-back pain.
Alternative Therapies for Back Pain
In an effort to cope with recurring back pain, many people turn to alternative modes of treatment, in particular seeking relief from chiropractors and acupuncturists. Do these therapies work?
Chiropractic may be worth trying, but the problem is that spinal manipulation does not appear to be any more effective than medical treatments at the other end of the spectrum. A study from the North Carolina Back Pain Project found that the benefits from treatment provided by primary-care physicians, chiropractors, or orthopedic surgeons were about equal.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared patients receiving physical therapy (the McKenzie method, which consists of certain exercises), chiropractic manipulation, or simply a good informational booklet about back pain. All three groups fared about the same. X-rays done by a chiropractor are no more likely to be useful than those done by an MD.
Some people find that acupuncture provides relief. In 1997, a Consensus Panel at the National Institutes of Health concluded that acupuncture might be useful as an adjunct treatment for low back pain in a “comprehensive management program.” (Such a program would include preventive measures.) A study in Archives of Internal Medicine found acupuncture more effective than conventional treatments (including surgery), but possibly no better than sham acupuncture (placebo).
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