Whether it comes on suddenly or develops slowly, back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the U.S. It is estimated that nearly 65 million Americans report a recent episode of back pain. Some 16 million adults — 8 percent of all adults — experience persistent or chronic back pain. Not surprisingly back pain is one of the top causes for people to miss work or seek medical help.
The good news is that home treatment and self-care can reduce or even prevent back pain. But you should see a doctor for back pain, the Mayo Clinic advises, “[when] it:
- Lasts longer than a few weeks.
- Is severe and doesn't improve with rest.
- Spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain goes below the knee.
- Causes weakness, numbness, or tingling in one or both legs.
- Is paired with unexplained weight loss.”
If you don’t have these symptoms, try these six ways to remedy lower back pain on your own.
- Drink more milk.
“It’s not the milk per se, but the vitamin D it comes with.” AARP.com reports, “Some studies have found that those with the most severe back pain had the lowest levels of vitamin D.”
“The vitamin’s effect on bone health could help explain the connection. Research in the journal Menopause found that among postmenopausal women considering spine surgery, those with severe vitamin D deficiency had more severe disc degeneration and back pain. Stronger bones can help protect against back pain and other disabling issues. Consult your physician about your vitamin D levels, says A.N. Shamie, M.D., professor and chief of spine surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.”
- Avoid bed rest.
This advice may seem counterintuitive. When your back hurts you naturally want to go easy and even lie down in bed. However, “[s]tudies show that lying down too much can slow recovery and raise the pain,” counsels WebMD. “Over the last 25 years or so, probably the one thing we've learned definitively about back pain and bed rest is that is not OK,” says William Lauretti, DC, an associate professor at New York Chiropractic College and a spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association. Instead, “you want to be as active as you can be [given] your back pain.”
- Block the light in your bedroom.
If the quality of your sleep is poor when it is time to get some shut eye, you are more likely to suffer from back pain. “Even during sleep, your body can recognize when there’s too much light in your bedroom,” observes AARP.com. “Your heart rate increases, and your quality of sleep suffers. And there’s a clear association between poor sleep and back pain. Sleep helps our muscles to relax and get rid of lactic acid buildup. Plus, sleep deprivation heightens your sensitivity to pain.”
- Get a better mattress.
Now that we are in a dark room and stretched out in bed, let’s talk about that old marshmallow-like mattress you are sleeping on. It isn’t doing your back any favors. The Journal of Orthopaedics and Traumatology maintains that sleeping on a medium-firm mattress not only improves sleep quality; it also reduces the risk of developing low back pain.
- Tamp down your stress.
Headaches, digestive issues, and —yes— back pain increase as your stress level goes up. “Living daily under high stress…breaks the body down,” says Psychology Today. “Your body wasn't designed to live each day wrangling with the checkbook for survival. The stress response was designed to help you evade becoming a bear's lunch, a brief burst of high-octane fuel and adrenaline to improve survival.”
“Over time, the stress response overloads your nervous system until it breaks like an overloaded, blown fuse. The overload results in exploding migraines, flaring back pain, or the ongoing cramping of irritable bowel. You may feel the symptoms in your head, back, or gastrointestinal tract, but the problem may reside in the nervous system from sensitization.”
- Move it, move it, move it.
“Most of us have heard the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’ referring to the growing epidemic of sedentary lifestyles in the United States,” the Heart Foundation tells us. Actually, both sitting and smoking can contribute to back woes. There are reams of research that show those who clock long hours of sedentary time every day can counter the risks by increasing their physical activity. Harvard Medical School suggests that “whenever possible, avoid prolonged sitting. If you sit at a desk in the office all day, get up periodically—at least every 30 minutes—and walk around. Walk to get a drink of water or to pick up your mail. Take breaks throughout the course of the day to prevent future bouts of pain.”
And if you need another reason to kick that other bad habit, the Spine Journal says research shows that smoking damages the spine. “Not only does nicotine damage spinal tissue, it can also weaken bones and make back pain worse”.
If you try these remedies and still feel pain, talk to your doctor about a referral to a pain management specialist, suggests the magazine Prevention. “More specific tests or treatments may be required to get to the bottom of what’s going on.”