Nearly everyone suffers from some type of back pain at some point in their lives. But no matter when it appears or what may have caused it, back pain can be a real, well…pain, to deal with. The good news? There are simple things you can do to prevent back pain and to keep your back in good condition. And if you're suffering from a back pain problem, try the following tips and you could be on your way towards feeling better.
A Good Night's Sleep
Sleep disturbances are common among back pain sufferers, but peaceful slumber helps to repair strained muscles and soothe inflamed joints. For a better night's sleep, start with a good bed and experiment with different sleeping positions. Try sleeping on your side — and on a firm surface — to prevent any curvature of the spine that could lead to or worsen back pain. Additionally, some people find that sleeping with a pillow between their knees helps them sleep more comfortably.
When back pain begins, it's not always the best idea to simply rest and wait for the pain to subside. Resting can cause certain types of back pain to worsen and decrease muscle strength. Instead of lying down, start with gentle stretches and try experimenting to see in what ways you can move without pain. Try going out for a slow, easy walk, and pick up the pace if it feels good. Regular exercise is also a smart idea — strengthening and stretching the muscles can reduce or eliminate many types of back pain. However, it's best to discuss your current routine and any changes to it with your doctor to avoid aggravating your condition.
"Having excess weight pulling on your back 24 hours a day except when you're laying down is just bad news for the back," says Lauri Grossman, DO, a licensed chiropractor and the founder of the Department of Homeopathic Medicine at New York University. "People who wrestle with back pain for a lifetime, if they lose a few pounds, often they find that the pain that they've taken a million medicines for and a million vitamins for — often that just goes away." If you're having trouble shedding extra pounds, consider consulting with a nutritionist or personal trainer.
"Whenever I work with any patient, I always want to make sure they're getting some form of bodywork," Dr. Grossman says. "I think that's very important. Chiropractic, osteopathy, physical therapy, some form of body therapy." Other specialized bodywork classes include the Alexander technique, which improves overall health by encouraging proper posture, non-injury flaring movements, and alignment of the head, neck, and trunk; and the Feldenkrais method, which gently increases flexibility, coordination, and awareness of body movement.
According to Susi Hately Aldous, owner of Functional Synergy, Inc. in Alberta, Canada, and author of several international best-selling yoga books, yoga can be very therapeutic for back pain sufferers. "Yoga helps improve back pain in three ways: unwinding myofascial tightness and imbalances, increasing body awareness, and improving breathing involving fluid movement of the diaphragm," she explains. "Without this fluid movement, excessive tension builds. Effective breathing also induces a "relaxation response" in the parasympathetic nervous system and that response helps to further relieve muscle tension and back pain."
For short-term pain relief, over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are sometimes suggested. The most common NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen. Potential side effects of NSAIDs include stomach and liver problems. Talk to your doctor if you don't find relief after taking the recommended dosage.
Grossman advises her patients with back pain to take glucosamine (500 mgs, three times a day), flaxseed oil (two teaspoons per day), calcium and magnesium (see the indications on the bottle), zinc (50 mgs a day), and vitamin C (2,000 mgs a day). "Those are the best supplements for back pain," she says, "and in terms of topical treatments, arnica gels and creams can be very helpful and won't interfere with anything you're taking. And they're inexpensive, too."
Heat and Cold
"I always tell my patients to play around [with hot and cold therapy] and see what feels better for them," says Grossman. Generally speaking, cold therapy (applied via an ice pack) works better for inflammation and helps to reduce swelling, while heat (via a hot water bottle or heating pad) is ideal for reducing cramping and muscle spasms. "Often moist heat is better; but be careful of dry heat, because it can actually dehydrate the tissue and prevent healing," Grossman advises.
Aquatic Therapy and Whirlpools
Physical therapists often recommend aquatic therapy for patients with back pain. This can include exercises done in warm, therapeutic pools — the buoyancy of the water helps deter strain on the joints — to encourage strengthening of muscles, gentle stretching, or floating to relax the muscles and release tension. Whirlpool baths work on the same principle: The heat encourages muscle relaxation and the movement of the water increases circulation. With home whirlpool units, try aiming the jets directly at your sore spots for a soothing underwater massage.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS) machines are small, battery-powered devices that transmit low-voltage electrical currents through electrodes that are attached to your skin. Considered very safe, TENS machines, according to one theory, work by scrambling the message of pain to the brain — literally blocking it. Another theory is that the electrical impulses cause endorphins to be released that override the sensation of pain. Many back pain patients have had success with TENS machines, though their effectiveness has not been clearly proven in controlled studies. Ask your doctor or physical therapist if this therapy might be right for you.