What Is Your Back Pain Telling You?

From the WebMD Archives

Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo

You may have heard that it's our body's way of sending us a message. But when back pain first arrives, what it tells you may not be the truth -- or, at least, not the whole story.

Symptom: A brand-new pain

What you think: "I need tests to find out what's going on"

The reality: You can feel better without seeing the doctor

Your next step: Try self-help tips

Symptom: A sudden pain with a fairly ordinary movement

What you think: "Uh-oh. I shouldn't have done that!"

The reality: You overdid it a few days ago. Stressed muscles only cried out with your latest quick movement

Your next step: Try self-help tips

Symptom: It hurts to move

What you think: "I'd better stay still, or I'll make it worse"

The reality: There's no connection — in most cases, activity will hasten your recovery

Your next step: Start moving and stretching gently as soon as possible. Don't stay in bed more than two days

Symptom: It's worst in early morning

What you think: "I must be sleeping in a weird position"

The reality: Back muscles tend to hurt more at day's end and following activity, not after resting

Your next step: A check for inflammatory problems, such as arthritis, that cause morning pain and stiffness

Symptom: A terrible pain

What you think: "This must be really serious!"

The reality: Even temporary problems like muscle sprains can hurt like crazy

Your next step: Tell your doctor about your pain, and also be sure to report symptoms like leg weakness

The First 48 Hours: Self-Help Tips

You've thrown your back out — #$%?! While the pain may be terrible, if you're lucky, it will be short-lived. Here, simple relief measures to get you back on your feet:

Chill (Then Thaw)

Apply an ice pack (a bag of frozen peas works, too), over a thin shirt or towel, for up to 20 minutes. Or give yourself (or recruit the nearest set of helping hands for) a five-minute ice massage using water frozen in a paper cup with the sides peeled down. Repeat as often as you want, but no more than once an hour. (Ice is a natural pain reliever, and it reduces swelling by causing blood vessels in the area to constrict.) After 48 hours, you want blood flow to increase to help healing, so switch to heat.


Reach for the Meds

Or, if reaching is out of the question, dispatch someone to the medicine chest for an anti-inflammatory — aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). These can be started right away (at the highest dose recommended on the label) to reduce pain and swelling. If you're allergic to these painkillers or they upset your stomach, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol), but it won't reduce inflammation as effectively. Consult your doctor if you're on other medications or if the OTC pills aren't touching the pain. You may need different or stronger meds, or a muscle relaxant.

Rest. A Little.

Naturally, you'll ask your husband to bring the laundry up from the basement and you'll stop doing any motion you think put you in this predicament. Lie down when you need to, but make sure it's in a back-neutral position: Try lying on your back with your head supported but not lifted and your knees bent and supported with a cushion. Another option: Lie on your side with one pillow behind your neck and another between your knees. Bed rest is OK only for the first 48 hours; after that (or even in those first two days), walking around will relieve pain-causing tension in your muscles.

Talk to your doctor if your pain continues to worsen, and seek professional help right away if:

  • You've fallen, been in a car accident, or had another traumatic injury
  • You can't move one or both legs, or you have severe numbness or weakness
  • You lose bowel control or have urinary difficulties, or you lose feeling in the groin (there may be severe nerve involvement)
  • You have fever — it could be an infection
  • You experience severe pain with movement, especially if you have arthritis or osteoporosis — you may have a fracture

Back Pain Remedies

The Good Housekeeping Research Institute assembled a panel of back-pain sufferers to test-drive four soothers, all top sellers from amazon.com.

Tiger Balm

This oldie — the herbal ointment was created about a century ago — is apparently still a goodie, earning top scores for immediate and longer-term relief. It "totally worked," said a panelist. $10.56 for two 4-packs.


Backnobber II

Practice may be key with this acupressure gadget; panelists who kept at it were rewarded with fewer knots and less tension. Better for relief after a bad day than for ongoing pain. $29


Testers liked that they didn't have to wait for the heat to activate with this warm-when-you-open-it wrap (a plus when you're in pain). More effective for right-away relief. $21 for three 2-packs.

Hitachi Magic Wand

Though this is touted as a back massager, if you Google it, you'll find the wand is primarily sold as a sex toy. Maybe that's why our panel — which tested it only on backs — was disappointed. $40

Originally published on November 12, 2009

Related content on goodhousekeeping.com

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine
Reprinted with permission from Hearst Communications, Inc.