Nearly everyone will experience back pain at some point in their lifetime. The World Health Organization’s 2013 update estimates the incidence of back pain is between 60 and 70 percent in adults. Fifteen to 45 percent of those individuals report that pain lasts a year or more. In the US, the same report notes that Americans lose about 149 million work days to back pain. The cost to the US health care system is estimated at between $100 and $200 billion per year, including lost wages and lower productivity. Back pain can be acute or chronic, mild or severe, and in many cases the cause is unknown. However, many home remedies, lifestyle modifications and similar strategies can alleviate your suffering and ease back pain.
1. Exercise – the Right Way
If there is one single thing you can do to help with your back pain, it is exercise. Resting for a day or two after an acute injury is fine, but the longer you are inactive, the more muscle strength you lose. It is particularly important to strengthen the core muscles of your trunk, which support the spine. You should:
~ Engage in aerobic exercise, at least 30 minutes of brisk walking every day. Swimming is another good choice for those with back pain. This helps relax muscles, keeps the blood flowing to all body structures and promotes the release of endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals your body produces.
~ Perform strengthening and stretching exercises. Muscles work in pairs to flex and extend the joints, including the joints of the spine. If either muscle in the pair is weak or tight, it makes it more difficult to move freely, increases the chance of muscle spasms and increases the risk of injury because it affects your balance and joint function.
2. Relax Both Body and Mind
Stress means tight muscles, and tight muscles mean you are more likely to experience pain. Meditation is excellent for relaxing and helps relieve anxiety, which can also promote muscle relaxation. In addition to meditation, try disciplines like yoga and tai chi. These combine mental focus, disciplined breathing and gentle stretching, all of which benefit your body and your mind.
3. Improve Your Posture
Chronic poor posture can both create the conditions that lead to back pain and exacerbate any symptoms you may have. Think of how your back feels when you spend time bent over at the waist. Even leaning slightly forward means the muscles in the trunk must support the full weight of the upper body. Practicing good posture keeps the spine in alignment and the muscles in neutral position, which relieves any stress or muscle tension. Try the old model’s trick – balance a book on your head while you walk, sit, stand or squat, until you know what good posture feels like.
4. Use Heat and Cold
Tight muscles and inflammation often respond to the application of heat and/or cold. In many cases, cold is better after an acute injury, while heat is better in dealing with chronic pain. A heating pad, ice pack or full body soak in a hot tub may help you feel better. Experiment to see what works best.
5. Try Massage
It’s natural to tighten muscles when you hurt. However, eventually the muscle shortens and can develop knots in the tissue. These tight muscles are much more likely to go into spasm, partly because they aren’t getting enough blood flow. Massage can help loosen the muscles, soothe the knots and promote overall relaxation.
6. Get Enough Sleep
Chronic pain often disrupts sleep. Rather than reaching for a sleeping pill, first make sure you’re practicing good sleep hygiene. Turn off the television and electronic devices at least two hours before bedtime. Back off on the caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Keep your bedroom cool. Most people with back pain will sleep better on their sides, with a long pillow between the legs and the uppermost arm over the top of the pillow. This keeps the spine in good alignment.
7. Don’t Use Tobacco in Any Form
In addition to its other negative health effects, smoking increases the risk of chronic back pain and also makes the pain more difficult to control. Scientists aren’t sure whether that’s because nicotine decreases circulation to the muscles or because of its effects on the brain itself.
8. Manage Your Emotions
Back pain is often accompanied by depression and anxiety, both of which can alter your perception of pain. It is also more difficult to exercise, handle your stress or implement other lifestyle changes when you are depressed and/or anxious. Talk therapy and support groups can both be helpful.
9. Practice Good Nutrition and Lose Excess Weight
Your body cannot function properly if you are eating poorly. Excess weight increases the risk of back injury, makes it more difficult to exercise and can contribute to sleep disorders. You need adequate protein to manufacture amino acids and you also need to take in the essential amino acids you can’t make. Three to four ounces or protein per meal should do it. The rest of your diet should be based on complex carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and some whole grains, plus healthy fats like olive oil.
10. Get Professional Help
In addition to home remedies and the tips above, consider a medical assessment and treatment. While many episodes of back pain may be related to posture, body mechanics or a stressful work environment, sometimes there might be more going on than meets the eye. Professionals can also recommend specific products, provide treatments such as acupuncture or physical therapy and order diagnostic tests such as X-rays.
Finding a source of back pain relief takes time. You may need to try a variety of things until you find the right combination. However, you should never neglect the basics of exercise, posture, sleep and emotional management. These strategies should form the core of your efforts to relieve back pain.