Back pain: Causes, remedies and treatments
What is back pain?
Back pain can be caused by a number of reasons, so it’s advisable to see your doctor if it’s bothering you. Rest up 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, and gradually move on to stretching and strengthening exercises.
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 specialist treatment. A good physiotherapist or chiropractor can help to stop the back spasm by applying traction and gentle manipulation.
Also see your 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 laboured breathing. Doctors often view back pain as a wake-up call, and may recommend an exercise program to stabilise and strengthen the spine to help prevent future problems.
Is it Sciatica?
The roots of the sciatic nerve lie near the base of your spine. They pass through a tunnel in your pelvis called the sciatic notch, then come together like separate lanes merging into highways–the 2 large sciatic nerves that lead all the way down your legs.
When the sciatic roots are pinched–by pressure from a herniated disc, for instance–sensations of pain, tingling or numbness may extend all the way from your buttocks to your legs, feet and toes.
About half the people who have sciatica achieve good results from most of the treatments recommended for lower back pain. If you have sciatica and don't get relief with these treatments, speak to your doctor.
And contact your doctor straight away if your foot is dragging, if you stumble when you walk or if you start to have trouble controlling your bladder or bowels. You may need urgent treatment in hospital and possibly surgery.
Immediate treatment for back pain
- 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 warm, not hot, heating pad on top of the plastic wrap. Leave it on for up to 20 minutes. You can repeat this 3 or 4 times a day for several days.
Read more: Is Paracetamol effective against back pain?
Exercises for back pain
When your back is feeling moderately better, do some stretching and strengthening exercises and in 4 to 6 weeks your back should be back in action.
- Explore postural therapies. If back pain is a recurring problem, you need to learn how to keep your spine and pelvis supple (and supporting muscles strong). Treatments that help restore function and improve posture include Feldenkrais and the Alexander Technique. There is also much evidence to support the notion that the maintenance of strong abdominal muscles is a key to a pain-free back.
Read more: How to slow down ageing: Exercises
Improve your posture
- When you're standing at the sink washing dishes, or waiting in a bus queue, raise 1 foot higher than the other. In the kitchen, keep a low sturdy box or a couple of old books by the sink, and put up a foot while you're standing there. Waiting in a queue, use a step or curb. Periodically change position by putting up the opposite foot. This shifting of weight gives alternating back muscles a chance to relax.
Read more: What does your body language say about you?
Home remedies for back pain
- Make the mind-body connection. Research indicates that daily relaxation, meditation or guided imagery can reduce pain perception. A Swedish study of people with recurring back pain found that relaxation techniques both reduced pain and increased feelings of wellbeing.
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Back pain creams and gels
- A mustard poultice works like capsaicin and other counter-irritants. To make a poultice, mix 1 part powdered mustard with 2 parts flour, adding water until you have a paste. Spread it on an old tea towel, then fold the cloth over and apply it like a compress to your skin; the mustard paste will seep through. Mustard can burn if left on for too long, so remove it if you feel skin discomfort. Don't use a mustard poultice more than 3 times a day. (Caution: Protect the skin with petroleum jelly when using a mustard poultice.)