We lean on our back muscles to help us stand, walk, bend, twist, breathe. And while they make up one of the 10 major skeletal muscle groups, it isn’t the largest or the strongest set of muscles in the human body. But for all the responsibility they shoulder, the lower back muscles are quite susceptible to injury, with as many as six in seven Americans experiencing back pain at some point. “I’ve seen patients who strained their back moving a couch, picking up a child, bending to pick up the car keys, even sneezing,” remarks Dr. Derrick Randall, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare pain management specialist.
Thankfully, 90 percent of these injuries are temporary and treatable without surgery, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. In fact, says Dr. Randall, you can care for most back injuries at home, regardless of whether your pain is from overuse or a strain. Here, the doctor shares effective ways to relieve back pain at home.
Three ways to relieve back pain at home
- An over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as naproxen or ibuprofen can quell those aches and pains.
- Acetaminophen is a good alternative if you find that NSAIDs irritate your stomach, just be sure to limit your intake to no more than 4,000mg daily, as too much of this medicine can damage the liver.
While the pain management specialist says there’s no harm in appropriately using these medications over an extended period of time, after three or four weeks of self-treatment, he recommends seeking medical intervention.
- Heat and ice
To relax tense back muscles, the doctor advises applying heat, ice or a combination of both. “If you’re suffering from a lower back muscle strain, alternating heat and ice helps,” says Dr. Randall. “Heat for an hour, then ice for an hour.” He warns against applying continuous heat, which can desensitize nerve endings and lead to using higher and higher temperatures until they become hot enough to burn.
- Rest (but not too much)
“You can rest your back, but you don’t want to be bedridden,” says Dr. Randall, explaining that you need to activate the muscles with gentle stretches, walking and daily movement. “If you remain sedentary, healing could become a longer and more arduous journey.” He suggests lifting no more than 5 to 10 pounds and avoiding exercises that increase abdominal pressure, such as sit ups, leg presses and squats.
When to see the doctor for back pain
While most lower back pain can be treated at home, a few red flags should send you to the doctor immediately: “If your back pain is accompanied by an inability to control your urine or bowels, or you have weakness in the legs that causes you to have trouble walking, seek medical help right away,” warns Dr. Randall.
Of course, if your back pain is severely impacting your ability to care for yourself or your family, do your job or meet other daily responsibilities, you don’t have to wait to schedule an appointment with your provider. The doctor may prescribe a stronger pain reliever or a muscle relaxant and direct you to physical therapy for a stretching and strengthening regimen. Interventional treatments like cortisone or steroid injections in the back can also be helpful before turning to surgery.
Prevent future injury
Once you’re back in business, the doctor recommends core exercises to keep you comfortably moving. “Planks are my favorite way to increase core muscles, which are all the muscles around the spine,” says Dr. Randall. Other good options include straight leg raises, bird dogs and Supermans. He also advises taking regular stretch breaks from sitting, practicing proper form whenever lifting heavy objects (“Use your leg muscles, not your back!”) and maintaining a healthy body weight. With a bit of core care, you can protect your back and prevent future injury.
If you don’t see improvement within three to four weeks using the self-care ways to relieve back pain at home, or if your pain begins to worsen in that time, call for backup from your primary care doctor, a physical therapist or an orthopedist.
If you don’t have a primary care doctor and would like a referral, call (843) 402-CARE or visit our online directory to find one that suits your needs.