Lower Back Pain Relief: Treatments That Really Work
More than 80 percent of adults will suffer and have to deal with missed work, healthcare costs, and the psychological toll of lower back pain. Here's how to find relief.
Learn why your back aches
There are numerous reasons why you may be saddled with back pain, says Melanie Strassberg, PT, DPT, clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in New Rochelle, New York: Muscle strains and spasms, a herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, and osteoarthritis are just a handful. Given the wide range of causes, your doctor will need to uncover the source during a medical examination before you can find the best pain relief.
Know when to make an appointment
Once back pain lasts for more than three months, it becomes chronic. “If pain becomes sharp and keeps you from sleeping, starts radiating down the front or back of your leg, or wraps around your side, get to the doctor,” says Strassberg. Another clue you should get medical attention: It’s “directional,” meaning it hurts more when you sit or stand in certain positions, she says. Start by avoiding these 15 everyday habits that hurt your back.
It may seem like the fix is lying in bed and bingeing on Netflix, but the opposite is true. For back pain in which there’s no real known cause (the majority of cases), movement is often the antidote for the ache. Research shows it’s best to do a mix of activities. Aerobic exercise boosts blood flow to heal soft tissue and increase mobility, strength exercises support the spine, and flexibility work improves movement and function. When it comes to exercise, follow the advice of your doctor, who knows the specifics or your back pain symptoms. (Try these exercises that ease back pain.)
DIY lower back relief
Taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen will help decrease inflammation in the short term. Couple that with heat and ice therapy to stop spasms, recommends Laser Spine Institute chiropractor, Robert Koser, DC. He adds that what you eat also makes a difference. A healthy, anti-inflammatory diet may help turn down pain and help you lose weight, as excess pounds put a strain on your spine.
See a chiropractor
Lower back pain may be debilitating at times, but there is some good news. “Most mild or acute lower back pain will dissipate with time and conservative treatment,” Koser says. One proven option is chiropractic care—the doctor can evaluate your spine and joints, and then offer treatments such as chiropractic manipulations of the spine, electric stimulation to decrease inflammation, and manual therapies to quell muscle tension, explains Koser.
Sign up for physical therapy
Another way to get lower back pain relief is to hook up with an expert in physical therapy, who will guide you in safe exercises that can strengthen and stretch the muscles. “This will prevent symptoms from worsening and further damage to the spine,” says Strassberg. She says that PTs address symptoms and target the underlying cause so that you can prevent future discomfort.
Stretch at home
While a PT can guide you through exercises to strengthen lower back muscles, you can take matters into your own hands by regularly stretching at home. For back pain relief, Strassberg says, a PT may recommend a few moves: hamstring stretch, piriformis stretch, and lower trunk rotation. Pelvic tilts and “clams” are other good targeted exercises. No luck? These are the surprising reasons why your lower back pain treatment may not be working.
This traditional treatment scores well in research for its pain-relieving properties—and you can add lower back pain relief to the list. In a review published in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers concluded that for chronic low back pain, acupuncture alone or in conjunction with other treatments could provide short-term improvements in pain and function compared to no treatment at all.
Consider interventional spine care
A physiatrist or interventional pain management doctor may help you avoid more invasive treatments. “These can include medications delivered to the spine such as epidural steroid injections to reduce inflammation, or radiofrequency nerve ablations to reduce transmission of neck or back pain,” explains Koser. The expert you meet will go over all of the options available to you.
Say “yes” to yoga
Among the issues a little downward dog can ease—such as anxiety, stress—yoga may also bring lower back pain relief, particularly if the pain is long-lasting. A 2017 study found that attending weekly yoga for three months was just as effective as physical therapy for alleviating symptoms, and far better than back advice alone. Yoga-goers were also more likely to stop taking medication after a year. Learn more about how yoga eases lower back pain.
Schedule a massage
A rub down can deliver real lower back pain relief. In a 2017 study, more than half of the participants told researchers that a series of massage therapy sessions eased their backache. “The study can give primary care providers the confidence to tell patients with chronic low back pain to try massage if the patients can afford to do so,” co-author of the study Niki Munk, PhD, said in a press release. (Here are 10 more things you should do if you wake up with back pain.)
Talk to your doc about laser surgery
Conventional treatments such as NSAIDs, heat, and ice, and stretching will be enough for most people—but not everyone. “If you’ve exhausted various conservative treatment options and have been in chronic pain for several months, you may be a candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery,” says Koser. There’s no reason to suffer—and you may not have to consider traditional open spine surgery at all. Minimally invasive procedures use an incision of less than one inch and require little downtime. “The muscles are spared during the procedure and are gently spaced apart, rather than being cut or torn away during traditional open spine surgery,” Koser says.
Proceed with caution when it comes to opioids
These powerful painkillers may not be all that: In a study published in JAMA, fast-acting opioids like morphine and oxycodone were no better than non-opioid medications (like Tylenol or an NSAID) in improving function in moderate to severe back pain. Talk to your doctor about the option that’s best for you. Don’t miss these 24 things pain doctors won’t tell you.
- Melanie Strassberg, PT, DPT, clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in New Rochelle, New York
- Robert Koser, DC, a Laser Spine Institute chiropractor
- Monroe Clinic: "BACK PAIN LASTING MORE THAN THREE MONTHS IS CONSIDERED A CHRONIC CONDITION."
- Healthcare: "A Systematic Review of the Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain"
- Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "Acupuncture for Low Back Pain: An Overview of Systematic Reviews"
- National Institutes of Health: "Yoga eases moderate to severe chronic low back pain"
- Pain Medicine: "Real-World Massage Therapy Produces Meaningful Effectiveness Signal for Primary Care Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain: Results of a Repeated Measures Cohort Study"
- Indiana University: "Study shows real-world massage is effective treatment for low back pain"
- JAMA: "Effect of Opioid vs Nonopioid Medications on Pain-Related Function in Patients With Chronic Back Pain or Hip or Knee Osteoarthritis Pain"