Your back is vulnerable to injury from numerous sources. Some remedies are simple, like driving with a pillow at your low back. Others are more complex, such as surgery for a spinal fracture. Here’s how to gain relief from common culprits.
Assess Your Mattress
Do you awaken with a backache that subsides with activity? If so, your mattress may not be supportive. Can you recall when you first bought your bed? Mattresses vary in longevity, according to their basic materials. Here are average lifespans of your mattress in years (via the best mattress topper):
- Memory foam—10
If your mattress is young, flipping or rotating it may end morning aches. Follow manufacturer guidelines for maintenance.
If you’re due for a new bed, consider four mattress types that promote spinal alignment—memory foam, latex, airbeds, and waterbeds. Also, choose a medium-firm density, as advised by chiropractors, spine surgeons, and physical therapists.
Only buy from a manufacturer with a flexible return policy and at least a 30-day trial period. Be sure to test any bed you’re considering in a store. Over the course of 10 minutes, check out the ease of entering and exiting the bed, lying on it, stretching, and changing sleep positions. Here are further mattress shopping tips.
Additionally, try to adopt side-sleeping, the position that best aligns your spine. Place a pillow between bent knees, and rest your head on just one pillow. If you can only sleep on your back, place a pillow below your knees.
Avoid stomach-sleeping, the worst posture for chronic back pain. This position flattens the natural curve of your spine and strains both your neck and back muscles.
Improve Your Posture While Working
Pain that’s only present while driving may be the fault of your car seat. Adjusting the position or adding a lumbar roll may stop the pain.
Does the ache only occur when seated at work? If so, you may need to alter your workstation to be more “ergonomic,” comfortably suiting your tasks. Following are ways to optimize your office design.
Posture—The ideal position is slightly leaning back, feet flat on the floor, and hips at a right angle to the floor. To ensure a 90-degree hip position, you may need to keep your feet on a low stool. To support your lumbar curve, place a pillow roll at your low back.
Keyboard and Mouse—Place them so your arms are 90 degrees to the floor. The keyboard should be 2 inches above your thighs. You’ll probably need a pull-out shelf to achieve this height.
Computer Monitor—Straighten your right arm, and reach for your screen. The tip of your third finger should just graze it.
Two Screens—If you work with two computer monitors, place them side-by-side, without a gap between them. Next, extend your right arm and pan both monitors, sweeping your arm past them. While panning the screens, your third fingertip should barely touch them.
Monitor Height—Adjust it so your gaze is 3 inches below the top. To do this, you may need to change your seat height or prop the monitor on a book. However, if you wear bifocals or trifocals, you may opt to lower the screen a few inches, so you can accurately see through the lower lenses.
Monitor Angle—A slight upward tilt allows you to see the whole screen and makes the display clearer than a straight position. However, if an upward angle increases glare, tilt the screen down a tad.
Sitting Space—Keep a space the size of your fist between the chair edge and the back of your knees.
Movement—Other items you frequently use should also be within easy reach. During your workday, be sure to get up every hour to walk around your office and stretch.
If you don’t know what’s causing your pain, see a specialist for a diagnosis. Without one, efforts to gain relief may be futile or even hazardous. Common sources of discomfort are the muscle strain, ligament sprain, disc bulge or herniation, osteoarthritis, and fracture of a spinal bone or “vertebra.” If the pain is severe, don’t delay obtaining professional care. Procrastinating can worsen an injury.
Specialists Who Diagnose and Treat Back Pain
Four types of clinicians are expert at diagnosing back pain—chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists, and orthopedic surgeons. Understanding the ways they differ in practice can steer you in the right direction for your particular case.
Using a treatment method called an “adjustment,” chiropractors correct spinal misalignment or “subluxation.” Manipulation involves using the hands or a small instrument to apply a controlled force to spinal joints. Restoring their normal position eases joint pressure, optimizes mobility, and relieves the pain of pinched nerves.
A chiropractor may supplement adjustments with the application of ice, heat, manual stretching, and electrical stimulation. Most do not teach strengthening or stretching exercises to correct postural or muscle imbalances. Taking a natural approach to care, chiropractors do not prescribe drugs.
Spinal adjustments pose serious risks. A bulging disc may rupture, and a herniated disc may worsen. You are not a candidate for manipulation if you have osteoporosis, cancer of the spine, leg numbness, or muscle weakness. These symptoms are best managed by a physical therapist.
Like chiropractors, osteopaths or “DOs” perform adjustments. However, the manipulation is gentler, often accompanied by soft tissue massage and mild stretching. Osteopathic doctors also take a more holistic approach to care than chiropractors.
At the initial evaluation, the doctor will analyze a patient’s posture, mobility, and walking pattern or “gait.” The DO will also assess joint and ligament health. By measuring a patient’s legs, the osteopath can determine if back pain is linked to a length discrepancy.
To promote healing, the doctor may design a home exercise program and suggest diet and lifestyle changes. They may advise ergonomic modifications. To prevent lifting injuries, they teach body mechanics.
For example, squatting rather than bending reduces back strain, along with holding objects close to the body. If needed, the doctor can also prescribe medication and perform surgery.
Dos are adept at treating back pain related to osteoarthritis, pregnancy, and “sciatica,” pain that radiates down the legs. Disc injuries, spinal stenosis, and osteoporosis are best treated by physical therapists.
This type of clinician specializes in strengthening and stretching muscles and joints and pain relief treatments called “modalities.” Physical therapists (PTs) also perform massage, spinal traction, and manual muscle stretching. The modalities they use include therapeutic ultrasound, electrical stimulation, heat, and cold. Pt facilities with pools offer aquatic therapy.
To assess if multiple factors are contributing to back pain, PTs take a comprehensive approach. The PT evaluation is similar to that of an osteopath. Pts also teach body mechanics, make ergonomic suggestions, and dispense home exercise programs. However, unlike osteopaths, they cannot prescribe drugs or perform surgery.
Pts are highly skilled at relieving the pain of disc injuries, muscle strains, ligament sprains, sciatica, spinal stenosis, and vertebral fractures.
This type of doctor corrects anatomical causes of back pain, such as herniated discs, spinal stenosis, arthritis, and spinal cord injuries. Surgery is always a last resort unless pain is accompanied by loss of bowel or bladder control and muscle weakness.
Changes to spinal anatomy are not reversible, and postoperative rehab is usually lengthy. Frequently, symptoms don’t resolve with surgery. Therefore, make sure you exhaust all conservative options before agreeing to a spinal operation.
Primary Care Physician
Before making an appointment with a back specialist, call your insurance provider. Find out if you’ll be covered for care and if referrals and prescriptions are required.
Then, see your primary care physician. Discuss the type of clinician you prefer and the one your doctor recommends. If you need a referral and prescription, obtain them before leaving your PCP’s office.
Popular Treatments for Lower Back Pain
Then, in conjunction with specialist treatments, try the following popular remedies. However just with like anything else, please consult your back doctor before trying new treatments.
Applying heat or cold to an injury can help soothe pain, reduce swelling, and even speed up the healing process. Sometimes, however, it can be tricky to know whether hot or cold would be better to help your particular injury. Here are a few guidelines to follow:
For the first one to three days, apply cold. It will ease swelling, inflammation, tissue damage, and pain. It also temporary numbs the painful site by quelling nerve impulse transmission. Keep a gel pack or bag of vegetables in your freezer at all times.
To apply, rinse a towel in warm water, and wring out the excess. Then, wrap your pack in the towel, and place over the injured site. If you don’t protect your skin with a barrier, it will suffer freezer burn. Keep the ice pack in place for 10 to 20 minutes. Repeat application as needed, up to eight times daily.
Two days after an acute episode, switch from cold to heat therapy. Or, apply heat for longstanding muscle pain. Warmth increases blood flow to damaged tissues, supplying them with healing oxygen and nutrients. Heat therapy sedates nerves, hindering pain impulses from reaching your brain. Warmth also calms spasms and makes stiff muscles more limber.
For a heat source, you can use an electric heating pad, hot water bottle, warm shower, or adhesive wraps, such as ThermaCare, sold in pharmacies. To avoid burns, set a heating pad to no higher than medium. Wrap a hot water bottle in a moist towel.
For an arthritic spine, cold is generally recommended to lower inflammation. Some people find it helpful to alternate between heat and cold. In the morning, they take a warm shower to loosen spinal joints. Later in the day, they apply a cold pack. If you have osteoarthritis, experiment with using heat versus cold. Results are subjective, varying between people.
For sciatic and disc injuries, heat therapy is the normal treatment. It tames associated muscle spasms, along with irritated nerves. As with arthritis, preferences vary among people. If radiating pain isn’t soothed by warmth, try ice.
Apply Topical Arnica
Arnica montana is an herb in the daisy family with anti-inflammatory properties. Records of use date back 500 years. The active ingredient helenalin, derived from arnica flowers, eases joint swelling, pain, and muscle spasm. It also improves blood circulation. If a bruise accompanies a back injury, arnica will fade it fast.
Unlike analgesic medications, arnica has no side effects. Just don’t apply arnica over an open cut or wound.
Skin absorbs arnica quickly, and it doesn’t stain clothes. You’ll find arnica gels, creams, and ointments in pharmacies and natural food stores. Apply a thin layer of the product to the pain site, and gently massage it into skin. Re-apply as needed.
Professional massage has numerous benefits. It releases endorphins, pain-killing hormones your body naturally makes. By boosting circulation, injured tissues receive the nutrition they need to heal. Massage also speeds the elimination of pain-causing waste products. Targeted muscle work eases tension and spasms. After a session, you may feel so relaxed that you sleep better!
Of the Many Types of Massage Available, Three Are Highly Effective for Back Pain:
- Swedish—uses a combination of light strokes, gentle pressure, and kneading motions
- Myofascial Release—stretches the fibrous connective tissue covering muscles
- Shiatsu—a gentle Japanese style, mostly using the fingers and fingertips, following the body’s energy channels. Unlike other massage types, Shiatsu eliminates the use of oils and creams, advantageous for sensitive skin.
Note—before scheduling a massage appointment, obtain medical clearance from your PCP. Massage is risky for certain diagnoses, such as hypertension, osteoporosis, cancer, and deep vein thrombosis. Your PCP can also advise of any restrictions or precautions a therapist must take in your case.
To ensure that you receive skilled and knowledgeable care, choose a licensed or certified massage therapist. They should be a graduate of an accredited program, approved by the National Certification Board of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork or the Commission on Massage Training Accreditation (COMTA).
If your budget and responsibilities allow, try to obtain massage once every week or two. Even monthly massage will reap residual benefits. Typically, fees range from $70-$90 per hour for independent practitioners. Some insurance companies cover massage when prescribed by a doctor as medically necessary. Here’s further information on how it may be possible to get coverage for massage therapy.
Create Back Pain Healing Plan
To minimize back pain, obtain a supportive mattress, and design an ergonomic workstation. If your job is mostly sedentary, be sure to walk and stretch on an hourly basis.
If aching persists, ensure that you have a diagnosis from a chiropractor, osteopath, or physical therapist, according to the advice of your PCP. Then, receive professional care for the duration of your insurance coverage or personal budget. With your doctor’s approval, get regular massage by a licensed or certified therapist.
Additional self-help measures are cold or heat therapy or a combination of both. Also, apply arnica cream, gel, or ointment, as needed.
Hopefully using these strategies will reduce your lower back pain. If the pain persists, always call or contact your doctor to see what you should do if the pain persists. And always remember to consult with your doctor to determine if the treatment is safe and something you can try.
Author Bio: Kara Masterson is a freelance writer from West Jordan, Utah. She graduated from the University of Utah and enjoys writing and spending time with her dog, Max. Kara recommends working with a professional like the Citrus Chiropractic Group or someone similar to help you care for your back pain.