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If you’ve been sidelined by a sore back, you’re not alone. Four out of five people experience back pain at some point, making it the fifth most common reason for visiting the doctor.

Back pain takes various forms, from a persistent dull ache to sudden sharp pain, and has many causes. Sometimes it results from a sprain, fracture, or other accidental injury. It can stem from a disease or medical condition, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, or spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal through which the spinal cord runs). Many people develop back pain in part because they’re overweight or sedentary.

The good news is that most lower back pain usually gets better within a few days or weeks, and surgery is rarely necessary. What’s more, simple self-help strategies such as these can be surprisingly effective at preventing back pain and keeping it from returning:

1. Get more exercise. If your back is hurting, you may think the best way to get relief is to limit exercise and to rest. A day or two of rest may help, but more than that may not help the pain. Experts now know that regular physical activity can help ease inflammation and muscle tension.

2. Watch your weight. Extra pounds, especially in your midsection, can make back pain worse by shifting your center of gravity and putting strain on your lower back. Staying within 10 pounds of your ideal weight may help control back pain. 

3. If you smoke, stop. Smoking restricts the flow of nutrient-containing blood to spinal discs, so smokers are especially vulnerable to back pain. 

4. Sleeping position. If you’re prone to back pain, talk with your doctor about the best sleeping position. Sleeping on your side with your knees pulled up slightly toward your chest is sometimes suggested. Prefer to sleep on your back? Put one pillow under your knees and another under your lower back. Sleeping on your stomach can be especially hard on your back. If you can’t sleep any other way, place a pillow under your hips. 

5. Pay attention to your posture. The best chair for preventing back pain is one with a straight back or low-back support. Keep your knees a bit higher than your hips while seated. Prop your feet on a stool if you need to. If you must stand for a prolonged period, keep your head up and your stomach pulled in. If possible, rest one foot on a stool -- and switch feet every five to 15 minutes. 

6. Be careful how you lift. Don’t bend over from the waist to lift heavy objects. Bend your knees and squat, pulling in your stomach muscles and holding the object close to your body as you stand up. Don't twist your body while lifting. If you can, push rather than pull heavy objects. Pushing is easier on the back.

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Every Day with Back Pain

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WebMD Video Series

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What role does posture play in your chronic back pain — and what can you do about it?