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 second 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. Sleep well. 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.
People prefer different things in their mattresses. If it’s too soft, many people will have backaches. The same is true for a very hard mattress. Many experts recommend a medium-firm mattress for those with chronic backache. It may take some trial and error to find what works for you. A piece of plywood between the box spring and mattress will stiffen a soft bed. A thick mattress pad will help soften a mattress that is too hard.
5. Pay attention to your posture. First, check your posture by standing with your heels against a wall. Your calves, buttocks, shoulders, and the back of your head should touch the wall. You should be able to slip your hand behind the small of your back. Now, step forward and stand normally. If your posture changes, correct it right away.
6. Start with your seat. 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. Your chair back should be set at an angle of about 110 degrees and should cradle the small of your back comfortably. If necessary, use a wedge-shaped cushion or lumbar pad. 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 or box about 6 inches high -- and switch feet every 5 to 15 minutes.
7. Check your desk. To avoid straining your neck and eyes, center your computer monitor in front of you, about an arm's length away. The top of the monitor should be about 2 to 3 inches above your eye level. If you wear bifocals, it may be more comfortable to lower your monitor slightly.
Type at the right height. A lot of people put their keyboard directly on their desk, so it's just below chest level. But typing at that height for a long time limits circulation and stresses the joints and nerves in your arms, shoulders, and wrists. That can cause numbness and pain in those areas, as well as your back. It can even lead to long-term problems like carpal tunnel syndrome.
If you can, use a keyboard tray that's beneath your desktop. Your keyboard should be slightly below your elbows.
8. Lighten up on laptop use. Your laptop may be easy to carry around, but if you use it a lot, put it on a desk and type on a separate keyboard and use a mouse.
Using a laptop on your lap for long periods causes you to bend your head forward. That puts pressure on the bones called vertebrae at the top of your neck, which can trigger headaches and pain in your back and neck.
If you need to use a laptop on your lap, make sure the monitor is about 6 inches below your gaze. That position helps lessen how much you have to bend your neck to see. You can prop the laptop on a book or tray if your lap is too low.
Another tip: Limit your laptop use to half an hour at a time.
9. Try not to type on your phone. It's OK to send an occasional text or email on your phone. But remember, when you type on your phone, you're bending your head and curving your spine. If you do that for more than a few minutes, it will put stress on the delicate vertebrae in your neck.
The solution is simple. Save longer messages for when you can sit down at a computer with a straight spine.
10. Take a lot of breaks. Every 10 minutes, take at least 20 seconds to stop typing and stand and stretch. And every 20 minutes, even if you took a break in between, stand and spend at least 2 minutes away from your computer.
11. 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. Let your legs do the lifting, not your back. Don't twist your body while lifting. If you can, push rather than pull heavy objects. Pushing is easier on the back.
12. Avoid high heels. They can shift your center of gravity and strain your lower back. Stick to a one-inch heel. If you have to go higher, bring along a pair of low-heeled shoes and slip into them if you become uncomfortable.
13. Stash the skinny jeans. Clothing so tight that it interferes with bending, sitting, or walking can aggravate back pain.
14. Lighten your wallet. Sitting on an overstuffed wallet may cause discomfort and back pain. If you’re going to be sitting for a prolonged period -- while driving, for example, take your wallet out of your back pocket.
15. Pick the right handbag or briefcase. Buy a bag or briefcase with a wide, adjustable strap that’s long enough to reach over your head. A messenger bag (like the ones bike messengers wear) is made to wear this way. Having the strap on the opposite shoulder of the bag distributes the weight more evenly and helps keep your shoulders even and your back pain-free. When carrying a heavy bag or case without straps, switch hands frequently to avoid putting all the stress on one side of the body. To lighten the load, periodically purge bags, cases, backpacks, and other carriers of things you don't need.
16. Forget about back braces. Various back supports are available, from elastic bands to special corsets. They can be helpful after certain kinds of surgery, but there is not much evidence that they help treat chronic back pain.
Workers who do a lot of heavy lifting are often required to wear lumbar support belts. There is also no proof that these belts prevent back injury. One study even found that these belts made injuries more likely