Back pain: Causes, symptoms, and treatments
“Oh, my aching back!” Wish you never had to utter those words again? Take it easy for a couple of days while taking some ibuprofen or naproxen sodium to ease swelling and relieve the pain. Also try the fast-acting solutions below—especially
ice and heat—for immediate relief. Then, as soon as possible, slowly get moving
again. When your back is feeling moderately better, do the stretching and strengthening exercises starting here—every day, religiously—and in four to six weeks your back should be back in action
Something’s amiss with the delicate column of bones, muscles, ligaments, and joints that holds you up. You might have strained a muscle, pulled a ligament, or maybe you have a herniated disk. These disks, which separate the vertebrae, are fibrous rings surrounding a pulpy core. If a disk is herniated, some of that pulpy material is pushing against a nerve root. You have sciatica if a herniated disk presses on the sciatic nerve, causing sharp pain to shoot down the leg. But there are numerous other causes of back pain: strains, arthritis, hairline spine fractures, even kidney infections.
Ice First, Heat Later
- As a pain reliever, ice works great. It temporarily blocks pain signals and
helps reduce swelling. Several times a day, lay an ice pack wrapped in a towel on
the painful area for up to 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can use a bag of frozen
peas or corn. During the first few days of home treatment, apply the ice pack as
frequently as necessary. Later you may still want to use ice after exercise or physical activities.
- After about 48 hours, switch to moist heat to stimulate blood flow and
reduce painful spasms. Dip a towel in very warm water, wring it out, then flatten
and fold it. Lie on your stomach with pillows under your hips and ankles. Place
the towel across the painful area, cover the towel with plastic wrap, then put a
heating pad—set on medium—atop the plastic. Leave it on for up to twenty
minutes. You can repeat this three or four times a day for several days.
Rub In Some Relief
- Ask a partner to massage the aching area. If you want to use a “back rub”
cream or ointment, go ahead, but use caution, as most topical creams produce
skin irritation after a few applications. For a simple back-massage aid, stuff several
tennis balls into a long sock, tie the end of the sock, and have your partner roll it
over your back.
- Rub on creams containing methyl salicylate. Derived from the wintergreen shrub, it’s a natural pain reliever related to aspirin. Often combined with menthol or camphor, it’s a common ingredient in many liniments such as Ben-Gay, ArthriCare, Heet Liniment, and Icy Hot cream. The creams, called counterirritants, stimulate nerve endings in the skin, distracting you from deeper pain. When you use them, you’re also giving yourself a massage—and that handson pressure combined with the surface action packs a one-two punch. (Of – limits. . .if you’re also using heating pads or hot compresses on the area.)
- Pick a pepper product. Your drugstore carries creams such as Capsin, PainX,
ThermoRub Lotion, and Zostrix that contain capsaicin, the heat-producing
substance in hot peppers. Applied to your skin, capsaicin depletes nerve endings
of a neurochemical called substance P. Researchers have found that substance P is
essential for transmitting pain sensations to the brain, so when there’s less
substance P in circulation, the pain meter is turned down a bit. Look for a cream
or ointment containing 0.075% or 0.025% capsaicin. And be patient: You may
have to use it for several weeks to feel the full effect. Stop using it if you begin to
feel any skin irritation.
Should I call the doctor?
Before you try any home remedies or exercises, see a doctor to find out
whether you have a common type of lower back pain or a medical problem that
requires special treatment. A good physical therapist or chiropractor can help
stop the back spasm by applying traction and gentle manipulation. Also call the
doctor if pain comes on suddenly, radiates down your leg to your knee or foot,
or if it’s accompanied by fever, stomach cramps, chest pain, or labored
breathing. Doctors consider back pain a wake-up call, and will usually
recommend a spine stabilization and strengthening program to help prevent
Swallow These Soothers
- Three or four times a day, take 500 milligrams of bromelain. Derived from
pineapples, this enzyme promotes circulation, reduces swelling, and helps your
body reabsorb the by-products of inflammation. Look for a strength between
1,200 and 2,400 MCU (milk-clotting units) or 720 and 1,440 GDU (gelatindissolving
units). Wait for at least an hour after each meal before taking the
bromelain, or it will work mainly in your gut instead of your muscles.
- Try taking one 250-milligram capsule of valerian four times a day. Some
scientists claim that this herb’s active ingredient interacts with receptors in the
brain to cause a sedating effect. Although sedatives are not generally
recommended, valerian is much milder than any pharmaceutical product.
(Valerian can also be made into a tea, but the smell is so strong—resembling
overused gym socks—that capsules are vastly preferable.)