Your back hurts, but not bad enough to go to the doctor. What can you do about it at home?
“If you have a light back injury, you’ll have localized lower back pain from working out or overdoing it. You might have some improvement when lying down, but it will be worse when bending over,” says James H. Albers, MD, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
“The vast majority of back injuries heal on their own,” says Dr. Albers. Here are some tips he suggests for managing a minor back injury.
“People used to think you should have total bed rest for days, but that’s counterproductive. It’s best to back off of the things that hurt, but keep moving so that you keep the blood flowing,” advises Dr. Albers.
Ice and Heat.
“Ice is good for the first 48 hours after you’ve injured your back, and then use heat after that. Ice is an anti-inflammatory. Place the ice pack on your back for 20 minutes every couple of hours. Ice is uncomfortable,” Dr. Albers says, “so be sure to place a towel between the ice pack and your skin.”
“Heat is a muscle relaxant and will improve blood flow, which will aid in healing. Because heat can burn,” Dr. Albers cautions, “exercise care when using a heating pad.”
Medications and Other Treatments.
“Good over-the-counter medications to relieve minor back pain include Aleve or Tylenol, whichever you prefer,” Dr. Albers says. “Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen are effective, too.”
“In the clinic, we can give you stronger prescription medications or other treatments, such as mild narcotics, stronger nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, injections, muscle relaxants, manipulations, medications for nerve pain, and referrals for therapy, if the over-the-counter medications are not providing relief,” Dr. Albers says.
Dr. Albers suggests sleeping on your side as the best position if you have minor back pain. “Sleeping flat on your back puts the most pressure on your back, so avoid this position. If you prefer sleeping on your back, put a pillow under your knees to keep your knees up. The average male weighs 170 pounds. The pillow can decrease pressure on your back by 55 pounds,” Dr. Albers says.
“You’ll need a chair with a good, firm back support, and you should sit with your knees a little higher than your hips. A firmer chair is better,” Dr. Albers suggests, “but always go with what’s comfortable for you.”
“It’s best to stand with one foot in front of the other. That takes the pressure off the back. If you have to stand for a while, shift your weight from one foot to another to reduce the stress on your back,” advises Dr. Albers.
“Pilates is pretty good stuff for strengthening your back. Ten years ago when I was team doctor for the Seattle Seahawks, we had the players do lumbar stabilizing exercises just like you do in Pilates. Also, any kind of core stabilization exercises, such as crunches, will help strengthen your back,” Dr. Albers says.
Dr. Albers also advises strengthening your leg muscles. “If your leg muscles are weak, you start cheating and use your back more, so you need to have strong legs to support your back,” he advises.
“General aerobic conditioning is also important. Studies show good aerobic fitness improves overall strength. You need to exercise three to five times a week for 30 minutes a day and do strengthening exercises two to three days a week in order to support a strong and healthy back,” Dr. Albers suggests.
Dr. Albers cautions that if you experience any of the following symptoms associated with your back pain, you need to be seen by a physician:
- Trauma or significant injury, such as a car wreck or falling from a considerable height
- Fever, chills, or unexplained weight loss
- Painful urination
- Shooting pain down the leg
- Weakness or numbness in limbs
- Loss of control of bowel or bladder
- History of osteoporosis
It’s best to avoid injury through prevention. Dr. Albers offers these tips to avoid back injury:
- Keep weight down (too much weight puts pressure on bones, joints, disks)
- Eat healthfully and nutritiously (if you’re too light, you risk osteoporosis)
- Don’t smoke (disks won’t get good blood flow)
- Bend and lift properly (use your knees, not your back)
- Get exercise
“We need to get into the prevention mode, not the treatment mode,” Dr. Albers advises.