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Healthy Aging

Self-Care for Lower Back Pain

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 03/06/2012
Last Updated: 03/06/2012

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It must have been that super-strenuous spin class I took last week, when my mind fooled me into believing I was 35 but my body stubbornly acted its age. Energized but exhausted, I continued this self-deception by joining a friend after class in some challenging new ab work. She showed me new moves she'd recently learned. I struggled to keep up with her, but my body protested until I graciously bowed out.

What happened the next day wasn't pretty. The minute I got out of bed I knew something was wrong. Pain shot through my right leg and then the leg buckled, threatening to throw me to the ground. And at frequent intervals throughout that day, that strange sensation threw me into fits of grimacing and grabbing onto the closest thing within reach to steady myself. Fortunately, I was in my house working, and no one except my dog could see my twisted expressions (and it didn't seem to faze her one bit—she's old; what can I say?) Except, that is, when hubby returned from work that night. "That's just not normal!" he said, the first time he witnessed my sudden near-collapse. "There's something wrong!" he insisted.

I figured I'd injured myself the day before and this is what I got … but then I guess his worry became contagious and suddenly seized my more sensible thoughts. Nasty contemplations ran through my head: A blood clot? Some rare neurological disease? A bone/circulation/muscular disorder?

I called my doctor the next day and described what was happening. "It's most likely your lower back," he said. “That's common.” I decided to wait a few days for it to improve. And the next morning, when I got out of bed, my lower back was sore—but the leg only buckled once or twice. And by the day after that … voila! My leg stayed as steady as the proverbial rock.

I'm sure you can relate to lower back pain; if you can't, you're in the minority. Up to 80 percent of us experience it at one point or another. It's so prevalent that it is estimated to cost Americans at least $50 billion each year in the quest for relief, and comes in second (behind headaches) as the most common neurological complaint in the United States.

Fortunately, I'm pretty much on the mend now, my back feeling (almost) back to normal. But I realize I'm lucky: many lower back aches take much longer to go away. Mine was caused by a sports injury, most likely pushing myself beyond my limit for that day, or positioning myself incorrectly on the bike. Others might experience back pain after lifting something too heavy, gardening or an event as innocent as sneezing, coughing or just turning around too quickly. Or a degenerative condition like arthritis may be to blame. And then there's always another cause—that "A" word. Aging. Our bone strength and muscle tone elasticity decrease with age; discs begin to lose their cushioning fluid and flexibility.

But back pain does not have to equal surgery. Most people do recover, in time, with some self-care.

Ice or heat: Compresses may help reduce pain and inflammation. Time matters: As soon as possible, apply a cold pack or cold compress to the tender spot for up to 20 minutes several times daily; a bag of ice or even a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel will work. After two to three days, switch over to heat to relax muscles and increase blood flow to the area. And there's nothing more soothing than a warm, relaxing bath.

Rest: I remember long ago when bed rest was the standard treatment for back pain. I don't know about you, but I feel much better when I'm up and about; things seem to stiffen up when I sit or lay flat. And studies have backed that up, finding that people who continue with their activities tend to appear to have better back flexibility than those who rested in bed for a week. Caution: there are some instances where rest is necessary and the preferred treatment. And when you do rest, lying on your side with a pillow between your knees can take some of the pressure off your muscles; or try lying on your back with a pillow beneath your knees.

Exercise: Gentle exercises can speed recovery and keep flexibility at its peak. This may include swimming, walking and movement therapy, which can develop better posture and coordination. Yoga and gentle stretching also might be effective ways to manage lower back pain. And there's a lot to be said, psychologically, for feeling like you're in control and actively doing something to help yourself. (Don't get overzealous, though: If you feel pain that goes beyond mild and lasts more than 15 minutes during exercise, stop what you're doing. Don't push yourself to do something that causes even more pain. Stay within your limit and listen to your body.)

Alternative treatments: Needles may sound scary, but these tiny, hair-thin flexible needles (in fact, it's hard to really call them "needles" in the conventional sense) can trigger the release of endorphins, the body's naturally occurring pain relievers. Acupuncture dates back centuries, but studies have shown it to be superior to medications or physical therapy in treating chronic back pain. Although acupuncture is controversial among many Western scientists and physicians, others support it. The WHO (World Health Organization) has found it effective in treating 28 conditions.

In addition, some people (about 22 million Americans visit them annually) swear by chiropractors, who gently manipulate and align the spine and may also incorporate other treatments such as ultrasound, massage, biofeedback and nutritional therapy.

Therapeutic touch and Reiki are "energy-based" techniques that don't involve direct physical contact. They are thought to help activate the body's own self-healing capacities. The jury is mixed on their efficacy, though, for many, they may help ease the anxiety associated with pain and thus might relieve muscle spasms associated with stress.

Medications: Many people find they are able to manage their pain with over-the-counter remedies like ibuprofen, aspirin or naproxen. Prescription drugs like muscle relaxers, opioids, anticonvulsants and even some antidepressants are sometimes recommended to manage moderate to severe pain. (But please remember to always check with your doc before taking drugs to manage pain; even over-the-counter medications can be unsafe in certain instances and can conflict with other medications or herbal supplements you might be taking.)

And then, there's more: More approaches to treat back pain include injections of local anesthetics, steroids or narcotics into affected areas; traction, TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) and ultrasound.

Spinning class will have to do without me for now, although I must admit, I miss the challenge. Perhaps the next time I go, I'll forgo the after-class exercises with my friend and instead use that time for some gentle stretching and catching up.

You might also want to read:
Those Extra Pounds Could Harm Your Back
Chronic Pain: Move It to Lose It


Wow! What a great list. The last time this happened to me, I discovered massage and swear by it now. So, my vote goes to a really talented massage person. Find one near you today!

Unfortunately back pain and accompanying leg pain have been my constant companion for 5 months now, and so far I know that it is likely aging, but the doctors haven't decided whether it is tendons or nerves that are causing the problem, so other than pain pills no therapy suggested. Like many things with our health, if we take care of our bodies when we are younger, they'll be kinder to us when we're older. Too late for me, but your warning should be heeded by younger women.

I couldn't agree more, Vera. Taking care of our bodies when we're younger does pay off...I wish I hadn't spent all that time in the sun/taking hi-impact aerobics...etc. etc. Sure am paying for it now!

Back pain is the worst. I've used acupuncture, chiropractors and massage therapy. All work wonders.

There's a book about back pain by Dr John Sarno a lot of people swear by. I looked at it once but it seemed to be saying back pain is mostly in your head, which I found kind of annoying.

Ouch! I had no idea lower back pain was the second most common complaint after headaches - it completely makes sense, though (she writes, as she grabs another pillow to give her better lumbar support).

I know what my back pain is from--a terrible desk chair. I've been debating trying to use a yoga ball to strengthen my back while I work--is that just crazy? In theory, it sounds like a great idea but I can just picture myself losing my balance...Thanks for the post!

Very comprehensive. Many people find significant benefit with acupuncture, though randomized controlled trials haven't been able to prove that out. While you did mention the potential benefits of chiropractors, there are also studies finding that chiropractic manipulation of the neck vertebrae can produce some serious consequences. (I have personally never found a benefit from visiting chiropractors.) In addition, finding a great physical therapist who uses a variety of modalities can be supremely helpful - especially if they know about Alexander Therapy and Feldenkrais Method.

Excellent summary of this. I live in fear of "throwing my back out" as my mother did (whatever on earth that means). Trouble is, your back affects everything.

A great excuse for a massage...not that we should need an excuse, or want pain to have to go get one!

You'd think with all the "practice" I have sitting at hospitals for eldercare things that I'd be in shape for sitting, but after our last day-long veterinary wait, my lower back was KILLING me. I can totally related to the leg-buckling, hunched over walking. Thankfully, some yoga mostly worked things out, along with a 30 minute massage, but I still get a twinge now and then. My best solution is moderate spinning on the bike + yoga.

I'm about to try rolfing to correct a problem that leads to periodic back aches for me. I'm optimistic.

I have seen mind-body work treat lower back and other types of pain quite effectively.

I've had lower back pain ever since I had two babies with no painkillers. What was I thinking?!

Hi Jane,

I had an epidural and ever since I used to suffer from terrible lower back problems .
I consulted my and he suggested Bellabaci cupping massage( basically is a silicone cup that pulls up oxygenated blood and eliminates the toxins) I stick these cups onto my lower back and the tension goes away immediately.
My back has gotten so much better. If you can find it , it be great , they do have a website. I was lucky enough to find it at my regular health spa Suntra Spa .

All the best

I have had back surgery so I know all too well what back pain is like. I have learned not to do anything unusual while exercising, to stick to the things that make my body feel good. No experimenting with different stretches. If your lower back hurts, take alleve, rest and it will go away. Swimming is the best exercise when you have back pain, I swam alot after surgery, now I do everything but still stick to the exercises I know will not hurt my back.

You're spot on with your recommendations. My husband injured his lower back 8 months or so ago. He's managed to work through almost all of the suggestions you make, but ultimately ended up with an epidural injection to ease his pain.

Count me among the crowd who has tried pretty much everything on your list, with mixed results. One thing I've learned in the couple of years I've dealt with what can be a chronic problem: "Lower back pain" is a very general term that can mean a lot of different things -- whether disc, nerve, or muscle damage -- or all three.

Similarly, what works for one does not work for all. It's a trial and error kind of thing. For me, heat and alleve do the trick, and deep tissue massage and accupuncture. And moving, always moving, over rest. For others it's ice, advil, chiropractics and rest. Go figure.

I, too, find that heat and periodically laying down on the floor or my firm mattress helps to straighten it out and relieve the pain. I sleep well on either my back or either side regardless of the issues, so getting that sleep has been the greatest relief. I have a wellness chiropractor who does his adjustments after his massage therapist have applied heat and massage - makes sense as my muscles are in the best relaxed state and movement with his gentle adjustments gradually move everything back into alignment. I just started with lower back issues and fully expect to resolve them permanently. I had an upper back problem in 1995 and a great chiropractor in about 3 weeks doing his adjustments, I have no longer have had issues, particularly since I get regular therpeutic massage (1-2 times a month).

Great tips! The thing that I really appreciate is that you consulted your doctor. Many times we want to ignore symptoms and that can sometimes lead to more severe or even permanent damage. I'm glad that was not the case with you.

For back strains, it is advisable not to intake processed foods, dairy products and vegetable oils. Supine spinal twist enhance intestines and abdominal organs. For improving suppleness, endurance and flexibility of shoulder girdle and lower back, pilates exercises are irrefutably optimum. Numerous women loose muscle endurance, flexibility and strength post-birth.

I do suffer from a bad back pain and it is even so painful that, sometimes I cannot even lie down or even sit. I have consulted so many doctors and all they could suggest was to undergo surgery, which I am not at all willing to. And this technique does sounds good to me.

ICD 10 Preparation

You suggest exercise while still in pain? I wouldn't have thought that would work. I thought you needed to rest first, then after the pain mostly, if not completely, recedes then you exercise.


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