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How to minimise the symptoms of back problems

How to minimise the symptoms of back problems

Back pain can be debilitating, but there are treatments and activities that can help minimise the symptoms of back problems

Most episodes of back pain resolve in time without the need to visit your GP. In the longer term, however, problems often recur. This may be because the immediate cause of the pain—a muscle spasm or sprain, for example—is merely a symptom of a wider problem such as muscle weakness or postural misalignment.

For this reason, it is important not to ignore the long-term treatment of back pain. Simple first-aid measures such as rest, heat treatment or over-the-counter analgesics can help relieve immediate symptoms. Persistent back pain may need professional treatment from a specialist such as a physiotherapist or an osteopath.

First-aid treatment

Woman with ice pack on backTreatments, such as ice packs, can reduce back pain in the short term. Credit: microgen

Cold treatments such as ice packs may help to reduce swelling and inflammation from back strains and sprains during the first 72 hours or so after injury. Wrap the ice packing a towel rather than placing it directly on your skin and apply for no more than 20–30 minutes every couple of hours.

Once the initial swelling subsides, heat treatments such as warming packs, hot water bottles or hot baths may help to ease muscle spasm and block the sensation of pain.


Man taking painkillerPainkillers can reduce pain but they cannot cure it. Credit: Tom Merton

Non-prescription painkillers such as paracetamol are often useful in the short term to relieve back pain. Certain painkillers, known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) also reduce the inflammation that often accompanies back injuries, strains and arthritic conditions.

"If you need to use painkillers for more than a few days, you should see a doctor to determine the underlying problem"

Avoid taking painkillers for long periods. Long-term use of painkillers to control chronic back pain may indicate that you need higher doses to achieve the same effect and some NSAIDs have been linked to heart problems. If you need to use painkillers for more than a few days, you should see a doctor to determine the underlying problem.

Rest and activity

Man in bedToo much bed rest could make your back pain worse. Credit: stefanamer

Doctors used to recommend bed rest for almost any back problem and there is no doubt that rest is important. Lying down reduces pressure on your spine and prevents friction between inflamed bones and discs. However, extended periods of bed rest can actually slow recovery and increase the risk of problems recurring.

Complete rest may be recommended during the acute phase (the first day or so after an injury) or during painful flare-ups of chronic conditions, but it is vital to get mobile again as quickly as possible.

Light activity encourages circulation (which aids healing), improves flexibility and maintains strong muscles around your spine. A number of studies have found that people with back pain who get back to normal activities quickly feel healthier, take fewer painkillers and are less distressed than those who limit their activities.

Back supports

You should never wear back or neck braces for extended periods unless specifically advised to do so by your GP or specialist. Long-term use of such supports stops you using your muscles and they will quickly start to atrophy, placing you at much greater risk of further injury.

Sports and activities

Exercise can be the key to supporting your back pain. Credit: Mladen Zivcoric

Although exercise is a great way to relieve painful backs, certain activities do have risks. Sports that involve constant impact, such as jogging, can aggravate low back pain and contact sports such as football can be dangerous if you have neck problems. Cycling can easily jar your back, particularly when riding over rough terrain. On the other hand, certain low impact activities bring real benefits.

Swimming and other water-based activities are useful because being in water reduces compression in your lower spine. Swimming is very low impact and warm water can help to ease muscle spasm. Backstroke is particularly beneficial as it opens up the chest and shoulders.

"Low impact activities bring real benefits in easing your back pain"

Walking is low-impact and helps to strengthen your back and stomach muscles without placing them under too much strain. Try to walk with your body held tall and always wear supportive, well-cushioned boots or shoes.

Exercise balls can help you to target your core muscles. The ball places you in an unstable position, so you automatically engage the muscles in your abdomen, back and pelvic-girdle region. This supports your lower back and spine, help you to maintain posture and control your twisting and bending movements.

Tai chi and yoga are both enjoyable ways to improve mobility, flexibility and muscle tone. The deliberate, flowing movements of tai chi and the controlled stretching required by the yoga poses encourage good postural awareness without straining or jarring your back

Physical therapy

physical therapyCombined with other treatments, physical therapy can help alleviate back pain. Credit: LSOPhoto

Many of the most common causes of backpain, such as muscle spasm and muscular tension, misaligned vertebrae and some postural problems, respond well to physical manipulation.

Massage is useful in improving circulation, aiding muscle recovery, and reducing tension. While a rub down from a friend, massage device or loved one can help, there are also a number of professional massage techniques which may help your back. These include neuromuscular therapy, a technique which focuses on areas of muscle spasm (trigger points). If you opt for a professional massage, make sure you choose a fully qualified masseur.

"Many of the most common causes of back pain respond well to physical manipulation"

Physiotherapy, which involves a range of physical and manipulative techniques that improve movement, strength and flexibility. Treatment should also address underlying factors that contribute to the physical problems; to get the full benefit it is vital to follow the therapist’s advice outside the sessions and to practise any recommended exercises.

Osteopathy and chiropractic, which are specialized manipulative therapies that focus on combating structural misalignments in the musculoskeletal system.

Back surgery

RadiologistSurgery is unlikely to be used, if there are still other options avaliable. Credit: Visivasnc

Surgery is a last resort for back problems. It is unlikely to be used unless other treatments have failed and, even then, the majority of back conditions are not suitable for surgery. There can be lengthy recovery times post-surgery and also a lot of preperations to be made before the surgery.

Tissue removal is one form of surgery that may help. During a laminectomy, the surgeon removes a small portion of vertebra or a bony spur to stop it pressing against your spinal cord or the nerves leaving your spine. In a discectomy, the surgeon removes a portion of an intervertebral disc such as a prolapsed disc that is pushing against a nerve.

Spinal fusion is another surgery that could be used. The surgeon may wish to fix two or more vertebrae together using bone grafts and metal plates, screws or rods. This may be to prevent instability from a fractured vertebrae or to correct a spinal deformity. The fused section of the spine is more stable and can bear weight better, but you lose flexibility and mobility. 

Banner Credit: Back pain (Lifemoment)

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