How can I alleviate lower back pain?

If you have some minor low back pain, I typically recommend some core-strengthening exercises, rest and avoiding the activities that aggravate the problem. Alternating ice and heat, and taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications may help. If the pain persists, you might want to seek medical care.

Dr. Langston T. Holly, MD

Rest and avoidance of aggravating activities are the first steps. Most people who have a sudden muscular strain will have significant improvement over several days to weeks. For patients with chronic or long-lasting low-back pain, physical therapy is commonly the best treatment. For patients who are overweight, weight-loss has been associated with improvement and/or complete alleviation of low-back pain.

Rick Olderman
Physical Therapy Specialist

The first step is understanding why you have back pain. As a physical therapist, I've found that the causes of back pain fall into different categories. Once you understand where you are within these categories, alleviating back pain will become easier. 

The three primary categories I've found that cause back pain are:

  1. Excessive lumbar lordosis or extension
  2. Diminished lumbar lordosis or flexion
  3. Rotation to one side or the other
Dr. Vonda Wright, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon

Lower back pain has become widespread because we live increasingly sedentary lives. In this video, Dr. Oz guest Dr. Vonda Wright talks about how to ease lower back pain by strengthening your core.

Dr. Monica L. Plesa, MD
Family Practitioner

Lower back pain is a very common problem. First, see your doctor to make sure it doesn't stem from a serious health issue. If you have lower-back pain, additional symptoms to watch for are fevers, chills, weakness or tingling. Most often, lower back pain is caused by muscular skeletal issues and can be treated with heat, massage, stretches and ibuprofen. 

To alleviate low-back pain takes a comprehensive approach. 

  1. Avoid sitting for more than three hours at a time. Extended periods of sitting can cause tightness in your hips and back resulting in pain. Get up and perform some light stretches and walk for 5-10 minutes before sitting back down.
  2. Practice maintaining ideal posture; avoid slouching. Poor posture increases stress to your vertebrae and can cause pain.
  3. Stretch chronically tight muscles such as your calves, hip flexors (muscles on the front of your hips), and latissimus dorsi (large back muscles). Tight muscles pull on your bones creating poor posture and eventually some form of trauma.
  4. Strengthen your gluteals and abdominals. These muscles help support your pelvis and spine and are extremely important to keep your back injury free.
  5. Below are some helpful exercises for your back.
Lower-back pain is practically as common as the cold. During any given 3-month period, about one in four Americans are wincing from it. Usually it’s due to muscle pulls and swelling, which presses on nerves. Activity decreases inflammation and swelling, as long as you don't overdo it. While most lower-back pain improves by itself within a month, who wants to go through a month of wincing?

Swimming and gentle yoga often help, but walking can ease lower-back pain in as little as seven days. Even if you walk very short distances (picking up the mail, stopping by the neighbor's house, going to the copier), just doing normal activities helps you recover and feel better faster. Why?
  • Moving pumps fluid out of your muscles (fluid's what causes the swelling, or edema) and helps prevent you from getting trapped in a downward spiral of inactivity, stiffness, pain and depression.
  • Focusing on helping yourself, rather than on how much it hurts, is good medicine all by itself. Never underestimate the pain-easing power of positive thinking.

Low back pain is a common symptom that is not generally associated with an illness or a specific injury. Even if the pain is severe, it can go away as quickly on its own as it does after medical treatment, sometimes more quickly. Most episodes of back pain that last more than one week diminish by themselves in about one month. To get relief from low back pain, consider these options:

  1. Take nonprescription pain relievers, such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen, at the first onset of pain in the lower back, hip and/or leg.
  2. Apply a cold pack (or a bag of ice wrapped in a towel) to the painful area for 5-10 minutes at a time, during the first 24-48 hours of discomfort.
  3. If the pain is not better within a few days, use a heating pad on the painful area.
  4. Keep moving, but protect your back. Avoid sudden turning or bending motions. As much as you can, avoid bed rest. Go on with your usual activities as much as possible.
  5. Get help. If the pain is still intense or troublesome after one week or so, make an appointment for spinal manipulation with a licensed physical therapist, chiropractor or osteopathic physician.
  6. If the pain has not decreased to a tolerable level after 4-6 weeks, make an appointment with your healthcare professional.

Low back pain can be caused by any number of things, from poor posture to bad shoes, to an injury, to sleeping in funky positions. A few things that you can try are when you are sleeping, try to sleep on your back. If you do need a small pillow underneath your legs that is fine, but even better is a rolled up towel. I would stay away from sleeping on your stomach.

You can also explore your footwear. A lot of times shoes, especially professional shoes, and sneakers have an elevated heel. An elevated heel in the sneaker can actually put more pressure into the low back.

Examining your work station and car seat position is a good idea. Pay attention to your posture and body position whether it is picking up children or swinging a golf club. Keeping ideal body alignment and using good mechanics throughout these activities to make sure that we are doing movements that are friendly for our bones, our joints, the ligaments, and cartilage will help in the short term as well as the long term.

You can also perform some light meditation, breathing exercise, flexibility, and core stability exercises to alleviate back pain. Many of us because of 21st century living tend to have several tight muscles that prevent joints from moving and weak muscles that do not really do their job right holding us in good posture. This tends to lead to worse body alignment and putting more stress and strain on the low back.

So big picture, take a look at the position of our body at night and during the day, then look at specific stretching and strengthening exercises, as well as breathing and relaxation exercises to take tension and stress out of the low back. Take care of that back, you only get one.

Low back pain can have many causes. The most common cause of low back pain is due to muscle strain. Weak core musculature, and tight hamstrings can result in poor spine mechanics. Or, in other words, your spine is not moving efficiently and properly resulting in muscle strain or undue strain on the discs and supporting structures.

Effective treatment of low back pain relies heavily on determining exactly which structure in the low back is causing your pain. There are several anatomic structures within the low back that can become inflamed resulting in low back pain. This includes muscles, ligaments, discs, nerves, and joints.

Bed rest is not an effective treatment for low back pain, and it is important to remain as active as able to prevent tightness and weakness of the supporting structures of your low back.

If your back pain persists despite a regular stretching regimen and core strengthening regimen a closer look by your physician may be needed to determine which structure within your low back is causing pain. This is important as the rehabilitation regimen and treatments vary depending on which structure within your low back is causing your pain.

While lower back pain can have numerous causes, two areas of the body that can have a profound impact on the health and comfort of the lower back are the hips and thoracic spine (mid-back). The body will always seek the path of least resistance. So, when the hip joints and thoracic spine—which by design should be very mobile—are restricted due to tight muscles and poor posture, then the lower back is forced to pick up the slack.

To show your lower back some love, help loosen up those hips and mid-back by completing the following exercise circuit (all exercises completed in row without rest) at least 3 times a week:

  • Foam Roll: Glutes/ Outer Hip
  • Foam roll: Front of the thigh
  • Foam roll: Thoracic spine/ mid-back

Find 1-3 tender spots per area and hold each spot for at least 30 seconds

  • Static stretch: Hip flexor muscles (front of hip/ thigh)
  • Static stretch: Lat muscles (mid/lower back and shoulder)

Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds and repeat 1-3 times

  • Abs/Hips: Bridges

Perform 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions

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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.