Like the nearly 80% of Americans who will experience a back problem during their lifetime, Beverly Hayes suffers from back pain. For many, the injury is triggered by a strenuous activity, like gardening or weight lifting. Others simply bend down to pick up a pencil and their back gives out.
“It felt like a screwdriver was piercing through my bones,” the 46-year-old Chicago artist says about the pain that developed shortly after she ran a half-marathon. “It took over my life. I couldn’t bend down or sleep — I was petrified I would never feel normal again.”
Mary Ann Wilmarth, DPT, a spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association and chief of physical therapy at Harvard University, says it is critical that people address any back pain or injury right away. “Early intervention can help prevent a chronic problem from developing and obviate the need for medication and surgery,” she says.
Thanks to a combination of activity, core strengthening exercises, and physical therapy, Hayes says her symptoms have improved dramatically over the last year. Here are 12 ways to help alleviate back pain:
1. Limit Bed Rest
Studies show that people with short-term low-back pain who rest feel more pain and have a harder time with daily tasks than those who stay active.
“Patients should avoid more than three days of bed rest,” says Mike Flippin, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in back and spine care at San Diego Medical Center. “I encourage my patients to get moving as quickly as possible.”
2. Keep Exercising
Activity is often the best medicine for back pain. “Simple exercises like walking can be very helpful,” Wilmarth says. “It gets people out of a sitting posture and puts the body in a neutral, upright position.”
But remember to move in moderation, Flippin says. “Stay away from strenuous activities like gardening and avoid whatever motion caused the pain in the first place.”
3. Maintain Good Posture
The pain may have started after a long workout at the gym, but the strain that caused it has probably been building for years. Wilmarth says most people have poor posture when going about their daily activities, putting unnecessary strain on their backs.
“Little things add up,” she says. “You can increase the pressure on your back by 50% simply by leaning over the sink incorrectly to brush your teeth. Keeping the right amount of curvature in the back takes pressure off the nerves and will reduce back pain.”
4. See a Specialist
Developing an individualized exercise plan is essential to managing chronic back pain, says D. Scott Davis, PT, MS, EdD, OCS, an orthopaedic physical therapist and associate professor at West Virginia University.
“There is no magic aspirin that addresses lower back pain in everyone,” Davis says. “Some patients need more core strengthening while others benefit mainly from stretching and improving flexibility. Find a physical therapist, exercise physiologist, or chiropractor who specializes in back care. They will match you with the right exercise plan.”