UNC Health Talk

Seven soothing solutions to back pain

Most of us have been waylaid by back pain, whether it was a dull ache, a sharp, stabbing feeling or something in between. Simply getting older, having poor posture or being overweight or out of shape can be the cause of your pain, but you could have a disk or ligament problem. If you’re under stress or coping with a disease like arthritis, that may also be behind the ache.

For some people, the pain is acute, which means it comes on suddenly and lasts for less than six weeks. Generally, the pain will begin to ease within a few days, with the help of over-the-counter pain relievers. People who have chronic back pain, which lasts longer than three months, should see their healthcare provider, who may prescribe stronger medications, such as muscle relaxants and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Whatever the source of your backache, take action to manage the pain and prevent it from coming back:

  1. Get moving. Talk with your healthcare provider about a safe exercise program that will strengthen your back muscles. This may include aerobic activity, such as swimming and walking, strength training and flexibility exercises and moves that strengthen your abdominal muscles. You may have heard that spending long periods of time in bed is a good treatment, but doing so can actually delay relief.
  2. Step on the scale. Maintain a healthy weight or lose weight if you need to. This will take some of the load off your back.
  3. Practice perfect posture. Stand and sit up straight. Pull your stomach in and align your head and neck with your shoulders and hips.
  4. Call in reinforcements. Avoid heavy lifting when you can, but if you have to lift, do so with your legs, not your lower back. Hold the item you’re lifting close to your body.
  5. Pack it up. Use heat (a hot-water bottle) to reduce muscle spasms and pain and cold (an ice pack) to lessen swelling and numb pain.
  6. Kick the habit. Stomp out smoking, which causes smoker’s cough and delays healing.
  7. Seek an alternative. Get a massage or try acupuncture, complementary treatments that may make you feel better.