Back pain is one of the most common physical ailments. Studies show that eight in 10 Americans have back pain at some point in their lives, usually in the lower back.
Sudden or severe back pain should be checked by a doctor or a physical therapist. That also goes for pain that won’t go away.
But sometimes you can treat nagging pain and discomfort on your own.
Wilson Ray, MD, chief of spine surgery for the Department of Neurological Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, says home remedies ” tend to be better when they're combined than [when done] alone.”
1. Keep Moving
You might not feel like it when you’re in pain. But this is probably the first thing your doctor will recommend.
”A common misconception in patients with isolated back pain is that they can’t stay active,” Ray says.
Try to keep up with your usual level of daily activity and movement. It can be a brisk 30-minute walk or circling the block with your dog. Aim to get on your feet at least three times a week.
Being sedentary “allows the muscles around the spine and in the back to become weak,” says Salman Hemani, MD, an assistant professor of orthopedics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “That in turn can cause less support for the spine” and lead to long-term pain.
2. Stretch and Strengthen
Strong muscles, especially in your abdominal core, help support your back. Strength and flexibility may help both relieve your pain and prevent it.
“A lot of times, I encourage people to do that first thing in the morning,” Ray says. But if you’re older or worried about overdoing it, you can stretch and do your strengthening exercises later in the day when your body is warmed up.
Yoga, Pilates, and tai chi are just a few of the ways to strengthen your core and the muscles around your hips. One exercise that targets your entire upper and lower back is to lie on your tummy and lift up your legs and arms in the flying position.
3. Keep Good Posture
This helps ease the pressure on your lower back. You can use tape, straps, or stretchy bands to help keep your spine in alignment. Aim to keep your head centered over your pelvis. Don’t slouch your shoulders or crane your chin forward.
If you work in front of a screen, rest your arms evenly on the table or desk, and keep your eyes level with the top of the screen. Get up from your chair and stretch and walk regularly.
4. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Shedding extra pounds lightens the load on your lower back.
“Weight loss really helps [with pain] because it reduces the amount of mechanical force onto the spine,” Hemani says.
If you need help, ask your doctor for advice on a diet and exercise plan that may work best for you.
5. Quit Smoking
Research suggests that if you smoke, you may be four times more likely than nonsmokers to have degenerative disk disease or other spine problems.
Nicotine in cigarettes and other tobacco products can weaken your spinal bones and take away vital nutrients from the spongy disks that cushion your joints. A healthy spine keeps your back flexible and its muscles from getting stiff and sore.
6. Try Ice and Heat
You may have heard that one is better than the other for relief from back pain. The short answer is that the best option is whichever works for you.
“Some people come in and they swear by heat or ice,” Ray says. “You might want to try both, and you’ll probably find that one is better suited for your relief.”
Usually, ice is best if your back is bothered by swelling or inflammation. A heating pad may be better if you’re trying to relax stiff or tight muscles.
Hemani suggests limiting ice or heat treatment to 20 minutes at a time. And don’t use them if you’re also putting muscle-ache creams or ointments on your skin.
7. Know Your OTC Medications
Nonprescription pain relievers can help with muscle aches and stiffness. The two main types of over-the-counter options are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen. NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
True to their name, NSAIDs help lower inflammation that can lead to swelling and tenderness. But acetaminophen does not relieve inflammation. You can reach for either type of pain reliever for occasional back pain. NSAIDs may work a bit better, Hemani says, if you have arthritis of the spine or other inflammatory conditions.
8. Rub on Medicated Creams
Skin creams, salves, ointments, or patches may help when your back feels stiff, sore, and tense. Many of these products contain ingredients such as menthol, camphor, or lidocaine that can cool, heat, or numb the affected area.
Put on creams right where you hurt. Ask someone to apply it if you have trouble reaching the spot.
“It's not going to be a mainstay at providing significant relief, but it can calm things down,” Ray says.
9. Ask About Supplements
For example, many people don’t get enough vitamin D, which is important for bone health. That can happen from lack of exposure to sunshine or because your body can’t absorb enough vitamin D from foods.
Always talk to your doctor before you take any supplements.
10. Throw in the Towel
A rolled-up towel can be a handy tool for back pain relief. Try putting it under your pelvis when you’re lying down. Let your hips relax over the towel and help stretch out the tension in your lower back. See how to sleep on your back.
A back brace can sometimes help, especially after an injury or surgery. But they’re not meant to be worn too often or for too long. “People become dependent on it, and it actually allows those muscles to become lazy,” Ray says.
No matter which home treatment you try, Hemani says, “If it helps you, if it makes you feel better, keep doing it.”