Picture a life without back pain — no grumpiness when your massage gun loses its charge, no more side eyes from your partner when you ask them for “just one more back rub,” no more scrambling to remember where you left the ibuprofen. A hard-to-imagine reality, right?
As it turns out, chronic back pain can heal. In a recent study, 39% of adults in the U.S. reported experiencing back pain within the previous three months.
Relief from back pain, however, takes a little bit of work, a good amount of consistency and a lot of patience.
What causes back pain?
Dr. Mindy Loveless, a physiatrist at UW Medicine, says there are two ways to think about the causes of back pain: the activity that causes it, such as bending and lifting, and the underlying structures causing the pain, such as arthritis.
“When I evaluate a patient, for example, I think of the structures in the spine that can generate pain, which include discs, bones, joints, the supporting structures and nerves,” she says.
Essentially, there’s usually an action, whether externally or internally, that triggers the pain in your back.
The source of the pain can come from more acute issues, such as disc herniations, fractures and sprain or strain injuries or chronic wear-and-tear changes related to aging. Some of these issues can also cause irritation or pressure on the nerves in the spine, which can create numbness in the legs, commonly referred to as “sciatica,” explains Loveless.
Here are a few common causes of back pain and some steps to take to start feeling some relief.
Unfortunately, the adults from our childhoods were right — neglecting to stand up straight would, quite literally, bite us in the back.
These days, whether you catch a reflection of your hunched posture when you’re relaxing at home or you find yourself rolling your shoulders for relief at your work desk, the tension and muscle strain can cause hard-to-ignore pain.
Loveless says upper back pain often originates from the neck, when poor posture strains the muscles that support the head or when neck arthritis or other disorders of the cervical spine affect the nerves that go to the back, a phenomenon called "referred" pain.
Consistent muscle overuse can be another culprit of back pain. This can come from anything as simple as wearing heavy backpacks or bags every day. This general wear-and-tear can cause herniated discs or a pinched nerve.
“Middle back pain, in the absence of a traumatic injury, is most commonly related to wear-and-tear type changes that occur in the spine,” says Loveless. “It’s generally much less common than upper or lower back pain.”
Someone might be predisposed to experience wear-and-tear in their back, especially with diseases such as arthritis. However, it can also be caused by aging, high-intensity sports, excessive heavy lifting, smoking or obesity.
And when it comes to injuries, an acute or traumatic injury to the back will definitely cause back pain. Whether you experience a fall, a car accident or incorrectly lift something heavy, the trauma to your back can leave long-lasting effects.
Unfortunately, aging can be a factor that affects back health. Diseases like osteoarthritis can sometimes cause the bones in the spine to rub against each other, causing a feeling of stiffness or pain in the neck or lower back.
This doesn’t mean you’re destined to live a life with a sore back, even if you have a family history of arthritis, or if you experienced a back injury earlier on in life. Thankfully, there are ways to treat your back pain, no matter the severity.
4 effective ways to treat back pain at home
Regardless of the type of pain, Loveless says most causes of back pain can be eliminated with medication, exercise and postural changes.
“Often, it takes longer than you’d like the pain to resolve, but it can go away,” she says.
Here’s how you can start.
The best treatment, Loveless says, is generally movement or exercise. In the more acute phase, this can look as simple as gentle stretching. As the pain improves, add in more strengthening exercises and other movements.
“Regular exercise is the key to maintaining a healthy spine,” says Loveless. “In addition to regular aerobic exercise, I recommend focusing on exercises that build endurance in the deep core muscles, which can include planks and various other exercises. Maintaining a healthy body weight can also reduce the strain and improve back pain.”
Some gentle stretches and exercises include:
Head rolls and sitting stretches
Planking, crunches and other core-strengthening movements
Take pain medication (sparingly)
Over-the-counter pain medication is a common way to relieve back pain. Try to only take the medications for a short duration of time. If taken too long, anti-inflammatory drugs can cause more harm than good. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can affect the cardiovascular, renal, respiratory and gastrointestinal (GI) systems, and overuse can increase the risk of high blood pressure, bleeding and strokes.
Sometimes taking these meds is what you need to do for pain relief, and that’s OK. Keep in mind how much you’re taking so you can best manage the pain long-term.
Soothe with hot and cold
Another supportive measure that works well with minor back pain is alternating cold and hot presses. Use a cold press, such as an ice pack, for no more than 15-20 minutes at a time. You can do this several times a day for a few days. You can then use a heating pad, a heated adhesive wrap or other heat packs on the affected area, alternating between hot and cold throughout the day as needed.
Create a routine
“For more chronic back pain, I encourage patients to work on developing a routine that includes a focus on aerobic exercise and strengthening exercises while also maintaining flexibility,” says Loveless.
You can create a routine or plan that works for you or ask your doctor about seeing a physical therapist who can help create a treatment plan tailored just for you.
When to see a doctor for back pain
Getting extra support isn’t the only reason you should see a doctor for back pain. If something feels wrong — something probably is.
“I would recommend an evaluation by a doctor for symptoms including severe pain, pain spreading into the legs, weakness in the legs, or if they’re just not comfortable managing the pain on their own and want an evaluation by a professional,” says Loveless. “Additionally, if there was trauma or there is a concern for a fracture — whether traumatic or due to low bone density such as osteoporosis — then an evaluation in a clinical setting is warranted.”
Loveless says if there are any issues with bladder or bowel function, if pain worsens at night, if there are symptoms such as fevers or chills, or if there is a loss of sensation in the “saddle,” aka the groin and inner thigh area of the body that typically meets a saddle while riding a horse, it’s urgent to get evaluated. Those symptoms can signal a more serious problem.
We know — we wish there was a quick and easy fix to heal from back pain. The discomfort is hard to ignore, and treatment takes a lot of time (and energy).
But with some consistent treatment, it’s possible that one day, you could wake up and go about your day — entirely pain-free.