Sometimes all it takes is bending over to pick up a pen from the floor for back pain to strike. Fortunately, most of the time back pain is short term and goes away on its own. But if you experience chronic back pain, you may benefit from making certain everyday adjustments.
In fact, lifestyle has the biggest influence on back pain, and healthy habits such as a good diet, exercising, stretching, and posture can give you back pain relief or help you prevent future problems.
Make these steps part of your back pain treatment plan:
Maintain a healthy weight. Staying fit is one of the most important recommendations for avoiding back pain, says Santiago Figuereo, MD, neurological surgeon and founder and medical director of the Miami Neurological Institute. Extra pounds stress your back and can cause pain. Eating a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables and low on processed foods can keep your weight in a healthy range and your back healthy.
Keep your back muscles strong. The most common back problems happen because people who aren’t in shape start doing heavy lifting or hard work and stress their back, Dr. Figuereo says. Back pain usually happens when there’s degeneration of the spine because the spine is working too hard. But when you build up enough muscle strength in your back with exercise, the muscles give your spine the support it needs to keep it healthy. That’s why physical therapy is standard back pain treatment, but being in shape can help you avoid back pain to begin with.
Stretch your muscles. In addition to exercise, stretching is important for staying flexible and avoiding back problems. It’s also a key part of recovering from a back injury. Stretch before doing heavy lifting or exercise and make a habit of doing it before bed. Stretches can be as simple as bending forward, bending back, and bending side to side, says Neil Kirschen, MD, chief of pain management in the department of anesthesiology at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, N.Y. The ultimate stretching exercise: yoga.
Focus on good posture. Poor posture is another major contributor of back pain. Standing up straight with your ears over your shoulders, your shoulders over your hip joints, and your hip joints over your ankles will help keep your healthy pain-free. When you’re sitting, getting a chair that’s designed to keep your back straight will help.
Lift properly. When you do pick up a heavy object, bend at the knees and keep the item close to your body. Also, take care not to twist your body when you lift, and wear a brace if you have a job that requires heavy lifting.
Leave your purse at home. If you can, stash a few dollars and your identification in your pocket when you leave the house rather than carrying around a heavy purse. Carrying a bag changes your balance and can change the curve of your spine, Dr. Kirschen says. Even a wallet packed full of cards and receipts in your back pocket can affect your back because it puts pressure on your sciatic nerve, he says.
Practice stress relief for back pain relief. Stress tends to make back pain worse. That may be another good reason to practice yoga. Other ways to reduce stress include treating yourself well, avoiding over-scheduling your days, and taking time to enjoy life.
Sleep well. Soft mattresses push your back out of alignment, so it’s best to choose a mattress that’s in the range of medium to firm for back pain relief, Figuereo says.
Living a healthy lifestyle that’s full of exercise and taking some care to have a healthy back can help you live free of chronic back pain.
Everyday Tips for Back Pain Relief
- Cold therapy
There are a lot of recent high-tech innovations for combating back pain. But a simple cold pack remains an effective and proven method for treating your aching back.
Typically, cold therapy is most effective when it is applied soon after an injury occurs (within the first 24 to 72 hours); or after any activity that causes pain and/or stiffness. Cold therapy can also be helpful when it comes to alleviating postoperative pain and discomfort.
There are a number of options for applying cold therapy, including a frozen water bottle or gel pack. You may also find that combining cold therapy with a massage brings even more relief.
- Heat therapy
Like cold therapy, heat therapy is a tried and true method for back pain relief. There are numerous benefits associated with heat therapy, including:
Spurring the flow of healing oxygen and nutrients to your lower back
Inhibiting the transmission of pain signals to your brain
Decreasing stiffness through the stretching of your soft tissues
Heat therapy is typically applied following the initial 24 to 72 hours after an injury. But if you suffer from chronic back pain you might try alternating heat and cold therapy until you find what works best for you.
- Hamstring stretching
If you have tight hamstring muscles (the large muscles in the back of your thighs), the motion in your pelvis may be limited. This in turn can increase the stress on your lower back. As you can imagine, tight hamstrings are particularly common for people who work sedentary office jobs.
Incorporating hamstring stretching into your daily routine is not as difficult as it may sound, as you can tie your stretching to a common activity. For example, every time your brush your teeth or drink a glass of water you can perform your hamstring stretches.
Make sure to speak with your doctor before beginning a hamstring stretching routine, as the wrong kinds of stretches may make your back pain worse.
- Exercise walking
If you’re like most people, your first reaction after a flare-up of back pain is to rest. This may be fine for a day or two, but prolonged rest can make your pain worse.
In contrast, most people with lower back pain can benefit from regular exercise walking (or some other form of low-impact aerobic exercise). Benefits of exercise walking include:
Increasing the stability of your spine
Increasing your range of motion (thereby making you less susceptible to future injuries)
Spurring the release of healing nutrients and oxygen
Don’t push yourself too hard if you are new to aerobic exercise. Simply begin with 5 minutes at a time, and then slowly build your way up.