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Whether you lift heavy items for your job or simply have a slipped disk from a pesky athletic injury, lower back pain is likely to plague you at some point in your life. Low back pain can result from an acute injury or from chronic overuse that leads to arthritis. This, in turn, can break down the fluid-filled disks in your spine that act as shock absorbers. Whatever the cause, there are some practices you can do to strengthen your back and keep lower back pain at bay.
You can use both ice and heat to your advantage when you experience lower back pain. However, order is important here. When faced with a new injury, first you ice it, then use heat.
If you’ve tweaked your lower back, apply ice during the first 24 to 48 hours. Here’s how you can use ice to your advantage:
- Place ice cubes or crushed ice in a plastic bag, or purchase a cool pack. Wrap what you’re using in a cloth to protect your skin from injury.
- Apply to your lower back for no more than 10 minutes at a time.
- Repeat as needed throughout the day. Give yourself at least 10-minute breaks between ice applications.
While heat may be tempting to apply after an injury, it can cause your body to release even more inflammatory compounds into your body. After one to two days and for chronic pain, you can begin to apply heat.
The same rules apply as a cold pack: Refrain from applying the heat source directly to your skin. Instead, wrap the heat pack or heating pad in a cloth first. While it can be tempting to sleep with a heating pad all night to relieve your back pain, avoid doing this. You can easily burn your skin if the protective cloth slips away.
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If you work at a desk job all day, you might have some areas of your workstation to thank for your back pain. Evaluating your space to make it more ergonomic (back-friendly), can help you experience lower back pain relief and prevent pain from getting worse. Rethinking your workspace for back relief starts with positioning your most important work tools.
- Key objects. If frequently used objects are too far out of arm’s reach, it can result in repeated twisting that can strain your lower back. To avoid this, keep things you use the most within easy reach. This could include your phone, stapler, pens, notepads, or anything else that gets regular use. If something is too large or heavy to keep near your keyboard, place it where you have to stand to get it to help you resist the urge to twist.
- Your chair. Your chair should be at a height to where your feet rest fully and flat on the floor. Your knees should also be level with your hips. If the back rest in your desk chair doesn’t adequately support your back, you may wish to purchase a small lumbar pillow or rolled-up towel to place in your lower back curve.
- Your computer monitor. Looking too high or too low at your monitor can affect your posture and therefore contribute to lower back pain. Your monitor should be about an arm’s length away from your chair with the top portion of the screen just a small amount below eye level.
An ergonomic desk is rarely enough. You’ll also need to get up frequently and take walking breaks to relieve muscle tension.
A healthy diet is important for a number of reasons when you have lower back pain. First, eating well can help you maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight puts extra strain on your lower back, adding to your pain. Second, a diet that’s high in key nutrients can help promote bone growth and keep your bones strong. These must-have nutrients include:
- Calcium. Foods high in calcium include dairy products, such as yogurt, milk, cheese, frozen yogurt, and ice cream. If you don’t (or can’t) eat dairy, some foods are fortified with calcium, such as cereal, orange juice, oatmeal, and nondairy milks. Veggies like collard greens, kale, bok choy, and broccoli also have calcium.
- Phosphorus. Foods high in phosphorus are also dairy foods, including cheese, milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, pudding, and yogurt. Other foods with phosphorus include: baked beans, kidney beans, black beans, bran cereals, oysters, sardines, and dark colas.
- Vitamin D. Foods high in vitamin D include cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon, fortified milk, sardines, eggs, and fortified cereals.
Sleeping in an awkward position can cause you to be in pain from the moment you wake up. The best sleeping position for lower back pain may be sleeping on your side with your knees drawn up close to your chest (also known as the fetal position). Placing a pillow or two between your legs, while sleeping on your side, helps to reduce stress on your lower back. Sleeping on a too soft mattress can also cause lower back pain. A firmer mattress is best.
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The Child’s Pose is a yoga position that is especially beneficial for the back. To perform Child’s Pose, start on all fours, then stretch back, resting your bottom on your feet. Your arms should stay extended with your hands on the floor. This creates a stretch in your lower back. Hold this pose for 30 seconds, then return to your starting position. Repeat five times.
Lower back pain can be a chronic and debilitating condition. Small, daily actions can either help or worsen your discomfort. By taking steps to strengthen, stretch, and protect your back, you can ideally stop or slow pain.
However, severe cases of low back pain can’t always be fixed by lifestyle changes. If your lower back pain interferes with your ability to perform everyday activities, talk to your doctor.