Lower Back Pain Treatment Options
What Is Back Pain?
Lower back pain is extremely common, especially in adults between the ages of 30 and 50, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Discomfort in the lower back can be chronic or ongoing, or a sudden and brief condition known as acute pain.
Causes of lower back pain include muscle pulls and spasms, nerve irritation, and spinal abnormalities such as a slipped disk and spinal stenosis. Treatment options for lower back pain range widely according to the cause of the condition. Read on to learn more.
Rest your lower back to counter the pain. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, this may simply mean reducing your level of activity for a couple of days, or full bed rest. Lying on your back with a pillow under your knees helps keep your back in a neutral or natural position. You might also find lying on the floor with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle and propped on a chair relieves some of your pain. However, don’t rest for too long—many cases of lower back pain resolve themselves within two days. Longer periods of inactivity can actually cause your muscles to weaken.
Heat or Ice
Attack lower back pain with a hot or cold compress. According to NINDS, anecdotal evidence suggests that using heat and ice packs can increase your mobility and reduce pain. Place a bag of ice or frozen vegetables—wrapped in a towel to protect your skin from frostbite—on the tender areas of your lower back to reduce inflammation. You can safely use ice several times daily for 20 minutes at a time.
Switch to heat after a couple of days of cold treatment, in the form of a heating pad or warm bath. The warmth will loosen the tight muscles that are causing your pain. Turn off the heating pad before falling asleep to reduce the risk of burns.
OTC Pain Relievers
Over-the-counter pain relievers are a non-invasive treatment option for back pain. Medications such as naproxen, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen are most effective in reducing pain and swelling associated with muscle-related lower back pain. However, OTC medicine is less likely to alleviate symptoms that stem from nerve compression or disk problems. Call your doctor if your back does not feel better after a few days of rest, hot or cold compresses, and over-the-counter analgesics.
Your doctor might prescribe stronger medication to relieve chronic lower back pain that doesn’t abate with the use of OTC medicines. Antidepressants, narcotics such as codeine, and anticonvulsant drugs may be used to treat lower back pain. Nerve pain such as sciatica, which results from a bulging disk in the lower back, can be difficult to treat with oral medications. For this type of discomfort, corticosteroids and anesthetic medications are injected into the affected nerve root to reduce inflammation. Once the swelling of the nerve decreases, you should find some relief.
Exercise may be the last thing on your mind when your back hurts. However, physical activity is an effective way to recover more quickly from your aches and pains. Core exercises—such as pelvic tilts and bridges—strengthen the muscles in your abdomen and back that support your spine. The stronger these muscles become, the less likely you are to be negatively affected by lower back pain.
Studies from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) report that people who practiced adapted yoga poses experienced less pain and disability, and improved mood after six months. Swimming and walking are also great ways to keep your back healthy and also keep your weight down. Excess weight plays a role in lower back pain because it puts more pressure on your joints.
Traction, Ultrasound and TENS
Back pain that doesn’t respond to more conventional treatments may choose alternative options. Traction uses a system of weights to align your spine and possibly help slipped disks move back into place. Ultrasound involves massaging the soft tissues around your back injury with sound waves that warm the muscles, causing them to relax and heal more quickly. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is electronic stimulation of the nerves through electrodes placed on your skin. The electricity blocks pain signals that travel through the nerve paths. Ask you doctor about these treatment methods.
Alternative medicine for lower back pain includes the use of chiropractic care and acupuncture. Chiropractics is the practice of manually realigning the spine and other weak or injured areas of the musculoskeletal system. Acupuncture is the ancient Chinese art of treating illness and injury through the manipulation of pressure points. Fine needles are sterilized and inserted into your skin at specific points across the body in an effort to realign your life’s spirit, called “qi,” and reduce pain.
Chronic, severe back pain requires surgery in relatively few people, but remains an option when all else fails. Small fragments of disk that have broken off or disintegrated can be removed surgically to take pressure off nerve paths. Injured or abnormal vertebrae that cause lower back pain may be fused together to straighten your back and help you regain mobility. Back surgery, as with any other surgical procedure, carries risks and is used only as a last resort.