You wake up. It’s a normal day. You throw your legs out of bed and feel a gripping pain at your back.
Or you’ve been to the supermarket. You reach into the trunk for the groceries, straighten up, and can barely speak for the shooting pain from a back spasm.
Or maybe you’ve had a great holiday overseas. When you step off the long flight, looking forward to sleeping in your own bed again, you are shocked that your lower back is screaming at you.
You want to know:
What should I do right now?
Do I need to see a doctor?
Is this going away?
What exactly is wrong with my back?
Is this something serious?
How do I stop this from happening again?
You also likely want to know how you can prevent back pain from becoming the new normal.
You’ll need knowledge about how your back works if you want to resolve the issue of pain long-term. A list of quick tips won’t be enough to change the habits that could be setting you up for more pain in the future.
Let’s dive in with the good news.
This is not as bad as you think
You can learn how to relieve lower back pain. But there are a few things you must realize first.
Most lower back pain is acute and won’t last long. You need to numb the pain and help muscles relax. In a day or two, you may be pain-free.
Take heart in knowing that you are not alone. Lower back pain is super common and there are proven remedies.
You can fix most lower back pain at home. Yes, movement is good even when your lower back hurts. You likely have all you need — a bed or yoga mat, ice, and a hot water bottle.
Common lifestyle habits set you up for long-term lower back pain. You’ll thank yourself for changing them.
What kind of lower back pain do you have?
It matters whether this is the first time ever that you’ve had lower back pain or just the first time this week. How to relieve lower back pain can differ depending on whether the condition is acute or chronic. What are the best practices for your pain?
Your lower back pain may be a minor annoyance or completely debilitating.
Your pain could feel like:
A dull ache: A strained muscle. It feels sore and tight.
Intense pain: If a muscle has gone into spasm. It feels tight and inflexible.
Electric, burning, sharp pain: a pinched or inflamed nerve, e.g., a compressed spinal disc.
It’s easy to strain a muscle in everyday living or sport. The fix is also easy and quick.
But if a muscle has gone into spasm or you have pinched a nerve, you’ll need a more accurate diagnosis. It’ll take more time and patience to heal.
Most back pain is gone in a few weeks or months. That’s called acute. If you’re still suffering years later, it’s chronic.
You can relieve acute pain with physical therapy, gels, and anti-inflammatories. But for chronic pain, you’ll need to look into long-term causes and add a few lifestyle changes.
Either way, it helps to understand how your back works.
You may need something more than a doctor’s visit
Half of all working Americans experience back pain every year, and 80% will at some time in their lives. What is your doctor not telling you?
After checking your symptoms, a doctor may diagnose arthritis as a cause of your back pain. She’ll likely recommend you see a specialist. There are different kinds of arthritis with specific treatments, including drug therapy. Arthritis can also be managed well by the home treatments listed here.
Whatever the cause, the doctor will likely prescribe anti-inflammatories and pain relief. For acute pain, these work, temporarily.
But if you are looking for relief that is more lasting, read on.
Posture and Pilates play a role in your recovery. But when did they last come up for discussion in your doctor’s office? This is where your own research and advocacy can help you return to radiant pain-free health.
Studying up a bit on back mechanics is a good starting point. The more you get familiar with how your back works, the more you’ll be able to master and prevent your pain.
Understand how your lower back works
Your lower back is part of the pelvic girdle, a bowl-like structure that supports the weight of everything above it through a network of muscles, ligaments, nerves, discs, bones, and joints. This lower back network holds you upright.
How you stand, sit, sleep, walk, and bend every day strengthens or weakens this network and the load on your lower back. If the load is repeatedly unbalanced over time, you’ll develop back pain.
Why is your lower back prone to pain?
The 3 natural curves (neck, upper back, lower back) in your spine give it flexibility and allow it to function more like a spring than a solid column. Pain comes from the pressure on your spinal muscles and discs when you lose or exaggerate these curves.
For example, sitting with a rounded back all day can flatten the lumbar curve (lower back). If you do lots of gymnastics, you may develop an exaggerated lumbar curve (swayback). Poor posture leads to misalignment (see image below).
You can check in a mirror to see how your own spine is holding up.
Over time, as the pelvis tilts too far backward or forward, the opposing muscles get strained. Some muscles shorten and others lengthen. The whole back network loses resilience.
Misalignment also stresses the intervertebral discs. They then can no longer cushion the spine from the impact of gravity. The discs dry out, lose flexibility or rupture, pinching nearby nerves. In time this can lead to a herniated disc, creating chronic back pain.
6 lower back pain causes that might surprise you
How did you set yourself up for back pain? It’s obvious why pain comes through a sports injury or accident. But for most of us, everyday life choices are enough to build up a cause for later pain.