Back pain is an incredibly common problem that affects millions of people. While there are many potential causes, most back pain results from simple muscle strains, poor posture, or everyday wear and tear on the structures of the back. The good news is that there are many ways to get relief and prevent future back pain episodes. Here are some tips.
Improve Your Posture
Poor posture puts unnecessary strain on the back. When you slouch or hunch over, it causes the spine to curve unnaturally and the muscles, ligaments and discs to become stressed. This can lead to general back discomfort, pain and even serious injuries over time. Make a conscious effort to improve your posture by:
- Sitting up straight with your shoulders pulled back. Avoid rounding your shoulders.
- Standing tall with your ears, shoulders and hips aligned. Engage your core.
- Sleeping on your side or back with knees bent and a pillow between your legs. Avoid sleeping on your stomach.
- Being aware of your posture throughout the day and correcting slouching/hunching. Set reminders if needed.
- Using ergonomic chairs and workstations that encourage proper posture.
Strengthen Your Core
Having strong abdominal and back muscles provides critical support for the spine and reduces strain. Aim to do core exercises 3-4 times per week such as:
- Planks: Hold a plank position, maintaining a straight line from head to toes.
- Bridges: Lie on your back with knees bent and lift your hips up towards the ceiling.
- Bird dogs: Get on your hands and knees and extend one arm forward and the opposite leg back at the same time.
Focus on maintaining stability and good form during these exercises rather than speed. Even a few minutes a day can strengthen your core over time.
Tight hips, hamstrings and chest muscles can pull on the back and cause pain. Dedicate time each day to stretch and improve flexibility in these key areas:
- Hamstrings: Sit with one leg extended. Lean forward and reach towards your toes. Repeat on the other side.
- Hips: Sit with knees bent and soles of feet together. Gently press down on knees to open hips.
- Chest: Interlace fingers behind back and push arms back to open up chest.
- Lower back: Lie on your back, bring knees to chest and gently rock/rotate knees side to side.
Aim to hold stretches for 30-60 seconds. Yoga is also excellent for improving overall flexibility.
Use Proper Lifting Technique
Lifting and bending forward incorrectly is a major cause of back injury. When you need to lift something:
- Stand close to the object with a wide stance and feet planted.
- Squat down while keeping your back straight.
- Use your legs to lift the object, not your back. Keep it close to your body.
- Avoid twisting as you lift. Move your feet instead.
Take your time and avoid lifting heavy objects above shoulder height. Consider getting help if needed. Use lifting belts for added back support.
Apply Heat and Cold
Applying hot or cold compresses to the back can provide relief for sore, stiff muscles.
- Heat (heating pads, warm baths) improves blood flow and relaxes tight muscles. Use for chronic pain.
- Cold (ice packs) reduces inflammation. Use for acute injuries or flare ups.
Alternate between hot and cold therapy for best results. Be careful not to burn or damage skin.
Consider Over-the-Counter Medication
For sudden flare ups of back pain, OTC non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce inflammation and provide short-term relief. Acetominophen may also help ease general discomfort.
Consult your doctor if needing medication for more than a week or two. Be aware of side effects and take only as directed.
See a Physical Therapist
If you have recurrent or severe back pain, see a physical therapist (PT). A PT can identify muscle imbalances, joint restrictions or biomechanical problems contributing to your pain.
They can provide customized stretching, strengthening and manual therapy techniques to properly treat the underlying cause and help prevent future back problems. Seeing a PT can often eliminate the need for medication or surgery.
When to See a Doctor
It’s important to consult a doctor if you experience:
- Severe or worsening pain
- Pain lasting more than 1-2 weeks
- Pain radiating down legs
- Numbness/tingling in legs
- Weakness in legs
- Bowel/bladder changes
These can indicate serious conditions like a herniated disc, fracture or nerve compression. Seek prompt medical care for evaluation.
Back pain can definitely slow you down, but doesn’t have to be a permanent problem. Focus on improving posture, stretching regularly, strengthening your core and being careful when lifting. Treat flare ups with rest, ice/heat and OTC medication. See a doctor if symptoms persist or get worse. With some diligence about back care, you can keep pain at bay and get back to doing what you love.