5 Secrets to Easing Back Pain

What you need to know to eliminate, reduce, and prevent back pain.
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Most of us will experience serious back pain at some point in our lives. The New England Journal of Medicine puts the numbers at 8 out of 10 Americans, with 31 million people in pain at any given time. Back pain is second only to the cold or flu as the most common reason people seek a doctor's advice.

The good news is that most people recover from serious back pain -- studies say 90 percent will get better, most within seven weeks. But what can we do to reduce, eliminate, or prevent back pain? Many patients and doctors recommend over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs -- ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin, and others -- when back pain flare-ups occur. Ice packs also come in handy. Below, five secrets to help you stay pain free.

1. Trace the pain to its source.

That tight, throbbing knot in your upper back? It might not have anything to do with heavy lifting or playing too much golf. The source of the pain might be somewhere else entirely. Like your feet.

High heels, shoes without enough arch support, or physical problems like flat feet or high arches all can contribute to back pain. For example, patients with exaggerated arches often experience pain throughout the body, including the back, because their feet don't absorb shock well, says Mark Wolpa, a podiatrist in Berkeley, California.

Also, a surprising number of people have legs of slightly different lengths. Wolpa says about 80 percent of his patients show signs of "limb length discrepancy," some caused by uneven bone length and others due to long-term positioning problems, where muscles have developed unevenly, shortening one side of the body. This uneven stance throws the whole body off balance, causing one part to compensate for another, often resulting in pain.

Another possible source of back pain is nerve damage. Ask your doctor if an EMG (electromyogram) test is in order, especially if the option of back surgery is on the table. If a doctor rules out specific disc, nerve, or malformation issues, it might be time to visit an alternative medical practitioner.

Massage therapists, chiropractors, and acupuncturists are known to take a more holistic approach to treating pain, which can involve asking questions about multiple aspects of your life, from nutrition to emotions. Check your health insurance plan to see if these treatments are covered, even partially.

What you can do:

  • Consider acupuncture or chiropractic care. Ask for recommendations from your primary care doctor as well as friends and others. If the same name keeps popping up, it's more likely you'll have a positive experience with that practitioner. Whether it's acupuncture or chiropractic care, if your first experience isn't positive, try a different practitioner whose technique works better for you.

  • Find a massage therapist skilled in therapeutic or medical massage (as opposed to simple feel-good massage). Personal recommendations are always best, so ask friends or colleagues for names. Neighborhood or regional e-mail groups or websites such as Yelp.com can help narrow down choices. Avoid most spas, where practitioners tend to focus on a soothing experience rather than on relieving a specific ailment.

2. Listen to your emotions.

Emotions can be key players in the pain game. Joe Smith, a certified athletic trainer in an orthopedic clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, says he encourages clients with severe pain to name the place in their body where they hold their stress. Then he asks them to talk about what's bothering them emotionally, such as an upcoming professional event or difficulties at home. "Sometimes that's enough for people to identify why they're having this pain," he says.

Numerous studies document the close ties between chronic pain, especially back pain, and a sufferer's psychological state. Medical studies also show that psychological interventions such as biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapies can be far more successful than traditional medical approaches.

Renee Bonjolo, a licensed massage therapist and owner of Body Central in Rhinebeck, New York, sees a clear link between what people are going through psychologically and how their bodies feel. Often these emotions involve guilt and anxiety, she says, especially with clients who are juggling work while caring for a parent, spouse, or child. She's found that the process of releasing tension and recognizing emotions relieves some of her clients' physical pain.

Attitude can also help, says podiatrist Wolpa. He's noticed patients who don't believe their pain will go away will often have difficulty completing treatment, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. "Emotions have a lot to do with one's well-being," he says.

What you can do:

  • Relax and do breathing exercises to eliminate stress, which reduces pain.

  • Say out loud the place where you are hurting, Smith recommends. Then name your reasons for stress. Do this alone or with a friend.

  • Try therapy or support groups, or visit a health practitioner to reduce stress and address underlying psychological issues that can contribute to pain.

3. Strengthen key muscles.

People can live fairly pain free if they continue to move like they did when they were younger. Lack of exercise and movement leads to decreased flexibility, which leads back to less movement, creating a vicious cycle. The solution? Get more exercise.

By finding one or two simple exercises, says John McKenzie, a physical therapist with Heartland Rehabilitation Services in New Jersey, sufferers can build up the core muscles their bodies need to support their daily movements and increase their flexibility. If pain is severe or the result of injury, it's important to consult a doctor who will likely recommend working with a physical or occupational therapist to develop an exercise plan. Those intent on preventing pain can follow a self-directed exercise course, though an initial consultation with an experienced athletic trainer or physical therapist can insure that you're doing the exercises properly.

What you can do:

  • Write down one simple goal -- like taking a walk several times a week -- and post it in a visible place, says Indiana University certified personal trainer Scott Catanzaro.

  • Tell a friend or family member about your exercise goals, however small, and encourage that person to ask you about your progress regularly. This is especially helpful if you're not working with a physical or occupational therapist who provides built-in support.

4. Vary your daily routine.

Constant sitting and staring at a computer screen -- while slouching forward and taking too few breaks to get up and stretch -- leads to poor posture. To prevent pain from becoming chronic, physical therapist McKenzie recommends breaking up your sitting routine as much as possible.

What you can do:

  • Stand up and move for 1 minute every 10 or 15 minutes. Shake out your arms and legs, pull your shoulders back, and do a few simple stretches. Set an egg timer or computer reminder and get up when the alarm goes off.

  • Practice standing and sitting with good posture, aligning the ear, shoulder, hip, and ankle every morning. Revisit this stance throughout the day. Post sticky notes throughout your home or office to remind yourself.

  • Lie flat on the floor, facing upward. This basic exercise reverses the forward-sitting slump many of McKenzie's patients experience.

5. Change everyday actions.

When we pay attention to the little things we do every day that put pressure on our bodies, we can take steps to correct bad habits. A lifetime of bending over in awkward positions to lift a heavy bag can mean unnecessary back strain. The same goes for driving, sleeping, and bending over to put dishes in the dishwasher. Making these small changes pays off in the end. "All that stuff really adds up," says physical therapist McKenzie.

What you can do:

  • Lighten your load. If you carry a purse or other bag every day, take out the nonessentials to reduce back strain. Don't carry it on the same shoulder all day. Or try a backpack-type purse to distribute the load.

  • Focus on one daily activity at a time. Experts say breaking a habit can take three or four weeks of consistent focus. When emptying the dishwasher, for example, try different ways to move your body to minimize overextension or awkward positions. Apply those same strategies to doing the laundry or taking out the trash.

  • When driving, support your lower back with a rolled-up towel or specially designed wedge to avoid slumping over.

  • Try sleeping with a body pillow, with your knees straddling the pillow, to help keep your spine in a neutral position.

  • Hold on to a table when picking up something off the floor, McKenzie advises. This distributes some of your body weight onto the arm instead of only the legs and back.

almost 3 years, said...

An interesting and helpful article. I will try out the suggested exercises

almost 5 years, said...

The information was extremely helpful. Thank you so much. There were many tips I had never heard of, but will try immediately.

over 5 years, said...

no doubt light to moderate exercise is a great benefit. My back hurt alot less when I was part of a Pilates class! Another helpful tip is the Omega-3 fish oil supplements to help with the inflammation. One piece of advice that there isn't much comment on is acupuncture. I do not like taking medications, but will take the Omega-3's, and I visit my acupuncturist weekly to get treatment for inflammation and pain management, and my chiropractor regularly for "tune-ups". These visits are very non-invasive and help my body heal itself, without phamaceuticals!

almost 6 years, said...

Some very valid points raised here.

almost 6 years, said...

OH, I forgot, Massage Therapy is the only short time relief. A good Massage therapist is worth her weight in gold!!

almost 6 years, said...

I was fused from T/10 thru S/1 in 2005. Now I have disabling pain in the disk above my fusion. Have had epidural injections, chiropractic care (which made the pain worse when he fractured the disk above my fusion) a failed spinal cord fusion and a radio frequency procedure where the MD burned the nerve. Nothing is helping. I take minimal pain meds as they have side effects and even oxycontin does not really help. I wake up around 4-5 am every morning w/pain and have to get up. If I cook a meal I am in pain. Do not know where to go from here.

about 6 years, said...

Re health issues: Two of the causes cited on page 1 apply to me and had never been mentioned although I've visited internists, neurologist, cardiologist, ortho, etc. etc. etc. Thank you so much. I have received a strong Spirit in me but a body wearing away day by day,, down but not crushed!

over 6 years, said...

Contained information I had not seen before!

over 6 years, said...

I guess my purs has to be emptied. I must lug a ton ofnon essentials around in it daily.

over 6 years, said...

This articl was very useful.

almost 7 years, said...

My husband was diagnosed in 94-95 with degenerating disc. Now, 16yrs later it's nearly unbearable. He can hardly work and we have no insurance so it's so hard to get help. I work when I can with his mom for 30-50$, depending on what we do at an elderly man's house. She's his caretaker. He is very,very mean and screams at us for talking or at me for having a cell phone.I even told him with 3 teens and a husband with a bad back, I mean, like last week he spent all week bowed over not able to stand, the elderly man still says I can't have it with me (but I do). Anyway, what I make isn't enough for anything! It kills my husband and breaks his heart. He feels like he's letting us down because he used to own a House Framing Company and we did very well. He feels useless. It breaks my heart and I cry most every other day because of his pain. I don't know what to do to help!! No insurance! It's like sink or swim. Suffer for all they care! I pray the Great Lord will help us find some relief and he can live pain free soon. At times he's even been/felt suicidal. It breaks my heart! I wish there was help for people. People like him esp that feel that the most important thing for him to do is care for us. It's heartbreaking!

almost 7 years, said...

I was almost immobilized with back pain. Could hardly get out of bed or up from a chair. Often the pain would wake me at night when I would turn over. Then I read this article and decided that I would try exercising regularly every day.I got on my largely-unused rowing machine and began an exercise program in earnest. I started with a set of twenty rows, morning and evening. Then increased to three sets, then five sets, twice a day. My back pains began to disappear almost immediately. Within a few days, they were virtually gone. I am still doing two sets per day but will probably ease off and do only one. You have made a believer (in exercise) out of me! Oh, and by the way, I'm 84 years old. Wes Ellis

almost 7 years, said...

Yeah, hard core OPIATES work too ... i REFUUSE to live in PAIN - in 2011 I should not have to, and I won't.

almost 7 years, said...

I want to send this to old diver. I thought of this as I read your story. Have you ever tried going to higher elevations? Like maybe if you went to Denver, the change in atmospheric pressure might help. Just a thought.

almost 7 years, said...

I think my only complaint is the need to click the number to get to the next part of the article. I dislike that especially when you ISP is having problems. You might end up logged off and never get to the last part of the article! The advice is good. I also add that you can't do everything at once. Little steps go a long way.

almost 7 years, said...

I found many useful tips in this article which I will put in to practice

almost 7 years, said...

I was taking pain medication every day before I bought a Nikken magnet for my back. I no longer take any pain medication...wear the magnet attached to my waisttband with velcro. Now I can do yardwork, painting the house, caregiving, childcare, high heels and lots of things which I had abandoned. I sleep on magnetic matress & pillow as well.

almost 7 years, said...

I lived on Vicodin for over 15yrs. before I finally said o.k. to surgery. I had pain you all can relate to...the pain in my left leg was so bad I was in tears. I had to keep working to keep my medical benefits...I was a Special Needs bus driver. I had children I had to carry, wheelchairs to manuvere, etc. etc. After years of pain, drugs, physical therapy, electonic stimulators, more drugs, the Dr. finally said a "piece of my L-4 vertebra had disappeared and my disk was buldging against my spinal column. Only way to fix that was to have L-4 & L-5 fused. Sure didn't want to do that, but, sometimes you get desperate. So, I had the surgery..as soon as I woke up, I knew the surgery was a success. No pain in my leg or hip....my mid back hurt like crazy and I had to have help in walking or turning over in bed, but, all that pain went away. This was in 1996. In 2005 I had the rods and screws removed. They were made of titanium and they cause some people to have a bad reaction to cold, damp weather. I was one of those people...I was miserable any time we had damp weather...even fog would set me off. Anyway...had that surgery and all was well. I still have pain and always will, but, it's in my back and in my hip now. If I stand or walk or bend or move too much...it's Vicodin time...but, only one now and then instead of up to 8 a day and sometimes more like before the surgery. The Dr. said before the surgery that, that was the only way to fix my problem. I am glad I had the surgery and would do it again. I have had the shots in my back three times and they worked for me for a year the first time and about 6-8 mo. the other two times. Since the injury was a WC claim, they won't let me have the shots again....now they say the shots haven't been "proven to work"...What? I don't understand why they worked before, but, not now. I did try accupunture several months ago. I went 9 times at $90 a visit!!! I couldn't afford to go anymore, but, I'm still feeling relief except when I really over do it. May that could work for some of you??? Long story, but, no one else to talk to about this who can really understand what REAL back pain is all about. Thanks for listening.

almost 7 years, said...

I empathize with all of you here. I am beginning to believe that the doctors don't know what to do, as each case is so different and modern medicine wants you in and out of the office ASAP and want only success stories. I know stress can really put my back in pain. Yes, to olddiver, there are many of us like you. I have gotten the shots in the back, BUT I won't go as far as surgery. I am a pharmacist and know about what all those meds can do to you. The massage therapy is good advice, as well as using towel behind your back. I wish all of you luck in finding answers. My issue is the loneliness and isolation this condition has caused me----YES, I believe we are our own doctors AND no one understands your pain.

almost 7 years, said...

Knowing the mistakes I'd made in the past that had triggered back pain and, therefore what to avoid.

over 7 years, said...

After over 40 years of trying to ignore the affects of decompression sickness, having periods of roll on the floor pain I ask if anyone has even a clue as to how to relieve that pain. One doctor who did a test of placing needles in my legs and got a radio station on his machine, told me I had "insulted my brain" I take that as being some sort of brain damage. I have at this point given up trying to do exercises, stretching, and all those things that seem to cause even more pain. My back cramps and pains terribly, my knees hurt even when I am lying in bed, let alone when I try to walk any distance. My legs spasm much of the night in bed, my feet swell and often hurt with acute pain or at other times burn. I have numb spots on the surface of parts of my legs. All this has been investigated by doctors, with no definative answers. Are there any answers? I have also gone to chiropractors, physical therapists, as well as some specialists. I've been wired, stuck with needles of cortizone, and had electric pulses applied to my body all to little or no effect. Surgery has never been explained as an option, nor do I want to experiment with that option. I bought a power wheelchair so I could get around, and try to do the things that I have slowly lost over the years. Fortunately I did make it working until I was 65, but had the retirement age been extended at that time I think I would not have been able to keep doing my job. All I do today is try not to do anything that makes me experience more pain. How many more folks are out there with somewhat similar experience?