40. Help for Your Aching Back

Most backaches are caused by muscular strain of the lower back. The goal of treatment is twofold: Relieve the pain and promote healing. Talk to your doctor about these options.


Aspirin and other painkillers can relieve back pain temporarily, but can’t correct back problems. Aspirin or one of the many nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, can reduce inflammation and dull the sensation of pain. (Taking aspirin with antacids or in a buffered form can reduce the stomach upset associated with it.) Muscle relaxants or analgesics containing codeine may be prescribed.


Continue your regular activities as much as you can. Rest the back if you must, but don’t rest in bed more than one to two days even if your back hurts a lot. Your back muscles can get weak if you don’t use them or if you stay in bed longer than two days. Bed rest should only be used for persons with severe limitations (due mostly to leg pain).

Other tips:

  1. Get comfortable when you are lying, standing, and sitting. For example, when you lie on your back, keep your upper back flat, but your hips and knees bent. Keep you feet flat on the bed. Tip your hips down and up until you find the best spot.

  2. Put a pillow under your knees or lie on your side with your knees bent. This will take pressure off your lower back.

  3. When you get up from bed, move slowly, roll on your side, and swing your legs to the floor. Push off the bed with your arms.

Cold Treatment.

Cold helps with bruises and swelling. For the first 48 hours after back symptoms start, apply a cold pack (or bag of ice) to the painful area. Lie on your back with your knees bent and put the cold pack under your lower back. Do this for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, several times a day.

Heat Treatment.

Heat makes blood flow which helps healing. Heat also helps relieve muscle spasm. Don’t use heat on a back strain until 48 or more hours after back symptoms start. Use cold treatment first (see “Cold Treatment” above). If used sooner, heat can make the pain and swelling worse. Use a moist heating pad, a hot-water bottle, hot compresses, a hot tub, hot baths, or hot showers. Use heat for 10 minutes at a time. Do this several times a day. Be careful not to burn yourself.


Massage won’t cure a backache, but it will increase blood flow to tight muscles and loosen them.

Braces or corsets.

These support the back and protect the spine by restricting movement, serving as a substitute for strong back muscles. Don’t rely on them to correct a weak back.

Spinal Manipulation.

This treatment, usually done by a chiropractor or osteopath, uses the hands to apply force to “adjust” the spine. This may be especially helpful for some people the first month they have low back symptoms. Check with your doctor about spinal manipulations. You may need a referral from your doctor to see a professional who does this form of treatment.

Once the acute pain passes, exercise programs designed to strengthen abdominal and back muscles are helpful. Also, don’t sit for prolonged periods of time – it puts extra strain on the lower back. And make sure you sleep on a firm mattress. Don’t sleep on your stomach; sleep on your back or side with your knees bent.

For most people, the above strategies will relieve lower back pain due to muscle strain from overexertion. If the pain lasts for more than five to seven days, however, or if the pain is moving down either or both buttocks into your thighs, or your legs are numb, or you notice a change in bowel or bladder habits, get medical attention. You may have a herniated spinal disk. (To prevent back pain in the first place by using proper lifting techniques, see Tip 43.) Not all back pain is due to a muscle strain or a disk problem. A person may experience back pain from a tumor (rarely) or a compression fracture from osteoporosis (occasionally).

Chapter 1
  1. Fast Relief for Everyday Health Problems