Managing Back Pain at Home and When to See a Physician
If it seems like your back is always hurting, you probably are eager to find some relief. But if you don’t feel comfortable making a visit to your doctor just yet, you might feel more at home with, well, some at-home care.
You can find all kinds of home remedies with a quick search on the internet, ranging from practical to downright dangerous. So we took out all the guesswork for you with a few remedies that really do work.
A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM) revealed that adults that participated in 12 weeks of yoga classes reported greater back function than those who were treated with anti-inflammatory medicines alone.
But yoga comes with a caveat, says Stephen Wolters, a physical therapy coordinator at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth.
“As a physical therapist, it has been a common experience that patients with back pain expect doing yoga will solve their problem,” he explains. “Unfortunately, some of the poses in yoga are really not good for patients with certain types of back pain.”
In fact, a study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that between 2001 and 2014, injury rates increased eightfold among people ages 65 and older, with the most common injuries being those that affect the back, such as strains and sprains. So, to determine what will work for a particular person, Wolters often asks the patient to show him what they are trying to do.
“I ask the patient to show me what they are doing, or bring in a book to show me what poses they are attempting,” Wolters says. “Sometimes a reasonable modification of the pose can be used, but at other times I advise certain poses, or any pose that places their body in a position that makes their condition worse to be avoided.”
“While I appreciate the benefits of yoga for enhancing flexibility and core stabilization, yoga is not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Talk to your doctor first about whether it’s okay to begin a yoga program if you suffer from low back pain. But once you get the go-ahead, remember that poses that focus on stretching and lengthening are often what your low back needs to feel better, so don’t be afraid to give it a try.
Changes in diet can help for more reasons than you might think. While weight hasn’t been proven as a direct cause of back pain, research has found that it can be a complicating factor.
A study published in the Medical Archives determined that obesity did not exert a direct influence on back pain but instead worsened underlying disorders, including herniated disc, ligament hardening and spinal arthritis. In another 2018 study, excessive weight and obesity were seen to aid in the added wear-and-tear that already exists in the body as we age.
Diet can have a two-fold effect on back pain; directly, by helping you lose excess weight, and indirectly, by consuming foods that are known to help reduce inflammation in the body.
When inflammation occurs, chemicals from your white blood cells are released to protect your body. It’s your body’s way of acting on a perceived attack on it. Pain is a byproduct of that response. While there are other treatments to address inflammation, food can also have anti-inflammatory properties.
Common food sensitivities that can contribute to inflammation and pain include:
- Wheat, Gluten
- Grains and Legumes
- Dairy (casein, whey)
If you suspect you might have food sensitivities that are contributing to inflammation and pain in your body, your physician can order a food sensitivity test, or you can try to avoid eating the suspected item for several weeks to see if the pain stays the same or gets better. If the pain remains the same, you may not have a sensitivity. But if the pain seems to improve, it might be best to exclude that item from your diet. Continue to work your way down the list if you suspect any other foods may be contributing.
Massage is also an effective back pain reliever. Another study also published in AIM found that chronic low back pain sufferers who got weekly massages reported less pain after 10 weeks than those who didn’t. Experts say this is most effective when your back pain is muscular in origin, though.
If you don’t feel comfortable heading out to a masseuse, here’s a DIY tip: place a tennis ball or a lacrosse ball on the floor and lie on it where the pain begins, or position it between your back and the wall. Roll your body slowly up and down and side to side so that the ball massages any areas of muscle tightness (avoid your spine to prevent injury). Press hard enough to squish the ball a little but not so hard that you’re feeling pain. Just a few minutes of rolling is sufficient.
Researchers have also found that acupuncture is effective, but recommend making sure that you find a reputable provider through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Again, if you don’t want to head out to see an acupuncturist, you can DIY until things ease up a bit. Try an acupressure mat. While it may look rather sinister, the mat’s unique design actually hits thousands of acupressure points at once, resulting in natural pain relief and relaxation.
It’s recommended to lay on the mat for up to 20 minutes a day. If that sounds unbearable, try working yourself up bit by bit. You can also adjust the intensity of the treatment by adding layers of fabric between you and the mat, or you can opt for bare skin for a stronger effect. While most users experience pain at first, as it subsides, many report their body loses tension and starts to feel more relaxed.
What may not work? Researchers have found that the effectiveness of transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation, or TENS, is not as great as they thought. Although you can buy a TENS unit over the counter at any drug store, the American Academy of Neurology says there is little evidence that the devices are effective for chronic low back pain.
Detoxing is another cure that comes up frequently on internet searches. However, experts warn that the body has its own methods of detoxing, and the efficacy of detox diets and other regimens is doubtful.
“The human body can defend itself very well against most environmental insults and the effects of occasional indulgence,” an article from the Harvard Medical School explains. “If you’re generally healthy, concentrate on giving your body what it needs to maintain its robust self-cleaning system — a healthful diet, adequate fluid intake, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and all recommended medical check-ups.
“If you experience fatigue, pallor, unexplained weight gain or loss, changes in bowel function, or breathing difficulties that persist for days or weeks, visit your doctor instead of a detox spa,” the article adds.
If you’ve recently tweaked your back, you may think about reaching for a heating pad. But Todd Shanks, M.D., a neurosurgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and with Dallas Minimally Invasive Spine, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, says that’s actually not a good first treatment.
“It is recommended that you start by applying cold several times a day in the first 24 to 72 hours,” Dr. Shanks explains. “After the initial swelling and inflammation have subsided, heat may be applied — such as from a heating pad — to relax muscles and increase blood flow. Treating an acute back injury initially with heat will have a negative impact on the healing process by delaying the strengthening of the injured area.”
Dr. Shanks notes that if the pain isn’t from a new injury and is chronic or ongoing, heat can be very useful to encourage healing. “Heat helps soothe joints and relax muscles, and is used to treat chronic pain that doesn’t result from a specific injury.”
Heat works by reducing muscle stiffness and improving circulation to a particular area. It can also be good for muscle flexibility and to promote healing of damaged tissue. Shanks suggests using heat from a steamed towel or heating pack in 10-minute increments of on and off.
When to See a Doctor
When is it time to seek professional treatment for back pain? “When your day-to-day quality of life is being compromised,” Shanks adds.
The Centers for Disease Control reported that lower back pain affects about a third of all women and a quarter of all men, but a survey by the American Physical Therapy Association found that 31 percent of men acknowledged when their condition affects work compared to 20 percent of women. The same APTA survey found that 37 percent do not seek professional help for back pain relief.
“Back pain is a common problem that can strike at any age. In fact, it’s the second most common reason people see their doctors. The thing about back pain is that the vast majority of patients will get better with a little care and time. Typically, half of patients will recover within two weeks, 70 percent by a month and 90 percent by 3 to 4 months, even without treatment. Fortunately, the back is very forgiving,” Shanks says.