My Back Went Out. What Do I Do?

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on April 12, 2023
3 min read

The feeling is all-too-familiar to the estimated 31 million Americans who live with back pain: Your back is out. Again.

But what exactly does that mean?

The feeling is hard to describe: For you, it may be a twinge that causes tenderness and discomfort. Or, the pain might be so intense that it hurts to make even the slightest movement. It can be concentrated in a specific area or spread out. You might feel achiness, numbness and tingling in your butt and legs.

You can lower your chances of throwing your back out by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. That means getting regular exercise, losing weight, and reducing stress. And if you smoke, you should quit.

You can also protect your back by not lifting heavy objects. If you can’t avoid it, be sure to lift the right way: Bend your knees and keep your back straight. It will keep you from pulling something or hurting your back.

It’s hard to know if or when your back will go out. It could happen while you’re moving furniture or shoveling snow. But even something as simple as sneezing or bending over to tie your shoe could trigger back spasms.

When it happens, there are some simple things you can do to relieve your pain.

When it hurts to move, rest might seem like the right thing to do. But sitting still for too long might make the problem worse. To keep your back muscles from losing tone:

  • Lie down for no more than a few hours at a time.
  • When lying on your back, put pillows under your knees.
  • If you’re lying on your side, put the pillows between your knees. This will help to relieve pressure.
  • Get back to your normal daily activities as soon as possible.

Put an ice pack on your back for 10 to 20 minutes to reduce nerve activity, pain, and swelling. And be sure to wrap the ice pack in a towel to protect your skin.

Studies show that it can provide short-term pain relief. A hot shower, bath or heating pad can help relax tense muscles and reduce inflammation. But if you use a heating pad, be careful. Don’t set it on “high” or fall asleep with it on your skin. It could cause serious burns.

Over-the-counter medications like aspirin and acetaminophen will relieve the pain. Ibuprofen and naproxen relieve pain and swelling. Your doctor may also prescribe steroids to relieve inflammation.

It helps build muscle strength and can speed up recovery. Stretching and strengthening exercises, like yoga, can ease chronic low back pain. Your doctor may also suggest physical therapy to make your back and abdominal muscles (your “core”) stronger. Studies show that exercises to strengthen the muscles that support the spine can reduce pain a lot.

When your back goes out, make an appointment with a massage therapist. A 2011 study found that this is an effective treatment for chronic low back pain.

With these treatments, your pain should go away on its own. Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, because they could be signs of a bigger problem:

  • The pain lasts for more than 3 days.
  • It moves from your back to other parts of your body.
  • You also have a fever or loss of bladder or bowel control.