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If you got up this morning and thought, “Ugh, my back hurts,” you’re not alone. About one in five Americans reports having experienced back pain at least once during the previous month. 

So, should you go to the doctor? Not necessarily. Most low back pain resolves on its own within about four to six weeks, with or without medical treatment. In many cases, you can manage your back pain at home.   

First, you should know when it’s a bad idea to handle your back pain yourself. If you have significant back pain accompanied by any of the following symptoms, see a doctor: 

  • Caused by an injury
  • So severe you can't move around during the day or sleep at night
  • Continues down your leg and below your knee
  • Numbness in your leg, foot, groin, or rectal area
  • Accompanied by fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, weakness, or sweating
  • Lost bladder or bowel control
  • History of osteoporosis or cancer
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • History of taking steroid medications, IV drugs, or substance abuse 

Without any of those symptoms or history, here are some options for easing your back pain on your own, without the intervention of a doctor.

Rest

First, you should rest your back. This doesn’t mean weeks of bed rest, as was once thought. “That’s the worst thing you can do,” says Jae Jung, MD, associate professor of orthopaedics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Jung suggests resting your back for about 48 hours after an injury or after the first time you notice significant pain. After that, you can slowly increase your activity level. Getting up and moving as soon as spasms and sharp pains subside can help ease pain and stiffness.

Ice or Heat

Applying ice or heat directly to the area of low back pain can help to decrease swelling and inflammation, and ease your discomfort. Studies have found that heat may be more beneficial than ice, but both have been shown to alleviate low back pain.

Heat works by dilating blood vessels. That increases the oxygen supply to the back and helps reduce muscle spasms. Cold works by possibly decreasing the size of the blood vessels and the blood flow to the area. That may reduce inflammation. Although it may feel painful at first, it can ease deep pain.

If you want to use heat, there are a number of options, including heating pads and disposable heat wraps. For ice, says Jung, it’s just as easy to use a package of frozen vegetables as to buy a commercially prepared ice pack. “You can get the ice on your back without having to run out of the house, if you’re really in pain.”

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