How can I relieve severe back pain?

Rick Olderman
Physical Therapy Specialist

To relieve your worst back pain, lie on your back with your knees bent and lower legs propped up on a chair or stool. Place ice under your lower back and/or take an anti-inflammatory medication if it is safe for you to do so. Remain in this position and just try to relax and let the irritated nerves in your back calm down.

  • If you have an extension problem (a spine that extends so well you have a difficult time flattening or flexing it), you will benefit from letting your back relax into the floor.
  • If you have a flexion problem (people with spine flexion problems typically lack pelvic flexibility), you will benefit from a folded towel or ice pack under your lower back to promote extension.
  • If you have a rotation problem (a spine that is rotated to one direction), you may find that a folded towel under one hip or under one side of your lower back helps ease the pain.

Find and maintain the best position for you. As the pain lessens and while in ideal alignment, try to stabilize your back by gently activating your lower abdominals. Forcefully exhaling will help to get these muscles firing. Pain inhibits muscle function, and your muscles' ability to adequately stabilize your spine is compromised when you are experiencing severe pain. A two- to three-inch-wide belt strapped tightly around your waist will help stabilize your spine and reduce the pain. This is a good temporary fix until the pain decreases and you're better able to stabilize your spine on your own.

After your pain has diminished, you can try sitting in a chair with your back supported similarly to your position on the floor. For instance, a person with extension problems should try to flatten his spine against the back of the chair while someone with a flexion problem should use a rolled up towel or ice pack to maintain some back extension. Rest and allow your back to adjust to this position. Again, practice turning on your lower abdominals to stabilize your spine in ideal alignment.

Eventually try standing with your back against the wall for support, activating your lower abdominals to stabilize your spine. Gradually walk away from the wall with your spine stabilized to protect it. You may only get as far as one step before you feel the need to lean against the wall. That's okay. Return to the wall and relax your back again. Continue attempting to walk with your spine stabilized and in good alignment. You may need to wear the belt for the next couple days until the pain is manageable.

Fixing You: Back Pain: Self-Treatment for Sciatica, Bulging and Herniated Disks, Stenosis, Degenerative Disks, and other diagnoses.

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Fixing You: Back Pain: Self-Treatment for Sciatica, Bulging and Herniated Disks, Stenosis, Degenerative Disks, and other diagnoses.

Back pain is often due to larger problems, such as poor walking habits or pelvic muscle tightness , that create vulnerabilities in the spine. This is why most people have trouble fixing their...
Dr. Langston T. Holly, MD

Sudden-onset severe back pain is most commonly associated with muscle strain in and around the low back. This type of pain is usually initially treated with rest. Avoid the activities that caused the pain in the first place. Taking an anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen also can be helpful. If the pain is chronic, physical therapy and sometimes steroid or anesthetic injections may help. In a small percentage of patients, surgery may be indicated to address their severe low-back pain.

If you are experiencing severe back pain that is causing shooting pains that radiate into your legs, you will need a physical exam and discussion of your history for your doctor to get a good understanding of what's going on.

Any time you have numbness, tingling, weakness, loss of function or pain that is uncontrollable or not understood—in other words, if you don't know where the pain is coming from—those are things that need to be diagnosed.

Severe back pain with neurological issues or any radiating pain might represent a more serious condition. If you do not have those other symptoms, the initial treatment is really a few days of rest, some ice and some anti-inflammatory to see if it gets better.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.