Find the Right Treatment for Your Back Pain

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 27, 2013
4 min read

What will help your back pain? There are a lot of choices.

Your best plan depends on your specific case. For instance, has your back been hurting for a couple of days, or a long time? Did it start with an obvious injury, or are you not really sure what happened? Are you basically healthy, or do you have other conditions, like diabetes or arthritis, to consider, too?

The good news is that there are a lot of effective options for you and your doctor to consider, including some you can do at home for little cost.

Most back pain goes away on its own within a few days to weeks. For many, home back pain treatments are enough to ease discomfort while the body heals.

  • Exercise. Resting your back for a day or so after hurting yourself is fine. After that, you need to get active. Stretching, walking, swimming, and other gentle exercises can help you recover. You might want to check with a qualified trainer or physical therapist to make sure you aren't overdoing it, and that you are using good form, which can make a difference in how your back feels.
  • Heat and Ice. If you're injured, apply cold packs to numb the pain and reduce swelling. Use them for up to 20 minutes, several times a day, for the first two to three days. After that, use a heating pad or warm baths to ease pain.
  • Over-the-Counter Medications. Common painkillers like Advil or Motrin IB (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen sodium), aspirin, and Tylenol (acetaminophen) can help with mild pain. Make sure to always follow the label directions closely. If you find yourself using these on an ongoing basis, you should tell your doctor. You may also get relief from painkilling creams or ointments that you rub on the skin.

See a doctor if at-home back pain treatments aren't working or your pain has lasted longer than a few weeks. You may need a new approach.

  • Injections. Your doctor may inject medicine into tissue, joints, or nerves in your back. Steroids can reduce swelling and pain. Painkillers can numb pain. Depending on the person and the type of medication injected, relief may last from several days to several months.
  • Physical Therapy. A physical therapist can give you exercises to build strength, help your posture, and improve how you move, so your back can recover and you can keep it strong.
  • Prescription Medication. For serious or long-lasting pain, your doctor may suggest prescription medication. This may include anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants, opioid painkillers, or antidepressants.
  • Surgery. Most people with back pain don't need surgery. But for certain people it can be the right treatment. A surgeon can repair damaged discs or fractures. However, surgery may not be a permanent solution. The pain sometimes returns.

There are several other back pain treatments you can try.

  • Acupuncture. An expert inserts tiny needles in your skin at specific points to relieve pain. Studies have found that acupuncture can help some people with back pain.
  • Electrical stimulation. This involves sending harmless levels of electricity to the nerves in order to ease pain. The most common form of this treatment is called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS.)
  • Massage. One study found that massage helped reduce back pain and improve function faster than regular medical care alone. Be sure to tell your massage therapist about your back pain and any injuries.
  • Spinal Manipulation. An expert will press against a joint in your spine with hands or a device. The idea is to relieve pressure and realign the joints and muscles. Spinal manipulation is also called chiropractic adjustment. Studies have found the approach can help with back pain.
  • Seek support from your furniture. Sit in chairs with good back support. Make sure your desk is at a comfortable height.
  • Have good posture. Try not to slouch when you're sitting or standing. Keep your shoulders back when sitting at a desk. Don't let your shoulders creep up toward your ears.
  • Lift carefully. Don't try to pick up things that are too heavy. When lifting, bend from your knees, not your waist.
  • Sleep on your side with your knees bent. It puts less stress on your spine. Try not to sleep on your stomach. If you sleep on your back, put pillows under your lower back and knees.
  • Stretch. Before you work out or do anything strenuous, stretch first. It lowers the risk of a strain or sprain.