How to Relieve Lower Back Pain: Your Ultimate Pain Management Guide (+ 6 Prevention Tips)
Feeling a dull pain in your lower back? Or a sharper pain? More like pins and needles?
You absentmindedly bent over to pick up a box in the garage and felt it the moment you attempted to lift. Or perhaps the rainy weather triggered another arthritis flare-up.
Maybe lower back pain afflicts you more frequently with each passing week of your second trimester. Or maybe PMS has provoked yet another “fun” monthly occurrence of lower back pain along with your cramps, bloating, and all the other “bells and whistles.”
Whatever the cause or however you characterize your experience, lower back pain is uncomfortable and irritating. It’s also extremely common; most people experience it at some point in their lives.
The lumbar spine and all the muscles and joints supporting it bear a great deal of your body’s weight. This area also contributes to much of our bending, twisting, lifting, standing, sitting, walking, and running movements. As such, our lower backs are more susceptible to injury than most other areas of our bodies.
The resulting pain, whether short-term or long-term, encumbers your daily life. Naturally, you seek relief. Salvation from this burden.
Can’t I find some miracle drug, home remedy, or exercise move that will relieve MY pain?!
Fortunately, numerous short-term relief options and long-term management options abound. We’ll guide you through how to relieve lower back pain as well as how to prevent it in the first place (or at least experience less of it if it occurs).
Bear in mind, however, that solutions differ for each individual. A remedy for the back pain accompanying your monthly cycle may not help with the back pain arising from a pre-existing medical condition or a previous injury that’s recently flared up.
And if your pain is new, you should visit your doctor to diagnose the specific cause before trying any remedies. Then you can coordinate to determine the best course of action moving forward without inadvertently adding to injury.
Lower Back Pain Causes and Risk Factors: Which Apply To You?
Understanding the cause can help inform the solution. Generally speaking, lower back pain occurs due to disease or injury affecting one or more of the components of your lower back:
- The muscles or tendons of your back (strain)
- The ligaments that support the spine and joints (sprain)
- The vertebrae (spinal fracture)
- The facet joints of the vertebrae or SI joints of the pelvis
- The intervertebral discs
Injury culprits range from bending awkwardly as a result of a game or lifting a heavy box with improper form, to accidents resulting in blunt trauma to the back such as a motor vehicle accident or a fall.
Such injuries can result in pain themselves or trigger certain medical conditions that cause pain. These same conditions, and others, can also arise due to genetics or risk factors such as aging.
The resulting pain typically presents as either acute (set on suddenly and lasting a short-term period) or chronic (lingering for an ongoing basis).
Medical Conditions That Cause Lower Back Pain
Medical conditions that cause lower back pain range from common to rare. The following list is not exhaustive but meant to give a sampling of the various causes of pain. You can suffer from one of these conditions or a combination of them.
- Osteoporosis: fractures in your vertebrae occurring as a result of porous or brittle bone
- Disc Injuries (Slipped Disc, Herniated Disc, Bulging Disc, Degenerative Disc Disease): injury to the gel-filled sacs between your vertebrae that act as cushions and shock absorbers during movement; damage to these discs cause inflammation and pain if it affects nearby nerve roots, but you actually won’t feel pain if the nerve roots remain untouched
- Arthritis: inflammation, swelling, and stiffness in the joints of your spine or pelvis
- Scoliosis: sideways curvature of your spine, ranging from mild to severe
- Spinal Stenosis: a narrowing of your spinal canal, causing constriction of the nerve roots in your spine
- Fibromyalgia: an autoimmune condition that results in widespread chronic pain
- Tumors: in rare cases, cancerous tumors can begin in another part of your body and spread to your spine
- Spinal Infections: rare but serious conditions where harmful bacteria, fungi, or viral agents originating in another part of your body make their way to your spinal tissue; they can also reach your spinal tissue as a direct result of surgery or spinal injection procedures
A quick note about Sciatica: Your sciatic nerve originates in your lower back and spreads down the back of your pelvis, down both your legs, and to your feet. Compression of this nerve results in lower back pain as well as a painful sensation that shoots through your buttocks, down your leg, and sometimes to your foot.
“Sciatica,” the term used for sciatic nerve pain as a symptom, is NOT a medical condition itself. Sciatica presents for many medical conditions, particularly disc issues, so you can experience Sciatica on its own or in combination with other forms of back pain.
Lower Back Pain Causes In Females
Several female-specific conditions and circumstances also cause lower back pain, especially in combination with other medical conditions or injuries:
- PMDD: severe PMS
- Dysmenorrhea: severe, sometimes debilitating, menstrual cramps
- Endometriosis: uterine tissue that’s displaced outside the uterus gravitates to other parts of your pelvis, causing pelvic pain and sometimes lower back pain
- Pregnancy: the extra weight gain places extra strain on your spine, your center of gravity changes, and your hormones relax the ligaments of your pelvic joints in preparation for labor
Risk Factors To Keep In Mind
Knowing whether you’re at higher risk for injury or any pain-inducing medical conditions is important because you can make lifestyle changes to either lower your risk or to lessen or prevent future pain.
- Activity Level: Overexerting yourself in sports or fitness activities can result in injury to your lower back. Alternatively, lack of stretching or exercise results in a limited range of motion (ROM) and stiffer muscles — a perfect storm for injury.
- Past Injuries: Unlike bone which can heal completely after a break, soft tissues such as muscles, tendons, and ligaments don’t recover 100% after sustaining an injury. Even if you feel 100% better and your doctor clears you to resume activity, those tissues have only healed to a certain extent and remain in a weaker state for the remainder of your life. Past injuries also flare up more as you age.
- Age: Your body naturally wears as you age, making this an uncontrollable factor. For example, you can defer Arthritis with preventative measures, but just about everyone suffers from it eventually due to aging joints.
- Posture: Improper posture or repeatedly staying in one position for too long, such as sitting for hours at a desk, strains your natural frame. Lifting heavy loads using improper form also creates undue strain, leading to injury.
- Weight: Overweight places more stress on your spine
- Stress: Stress places our bodies in high-alert mode and causes us to stiffen up as part of our fight/flight/freeze response. Prolonged or repeated occasions of stress result in repeated episodes of this response, ultimately causing physical pain. Anxiety and panic can similarly worsen an existing pain experience.
- Health: Health-related risk factors include medical conditions, family medical history (hereditary conditions), poor nutrition, and smoking.
When to Consult Your Doctor About Your Lower Back Pain
You should always see your doctor immediately following a serious injury such as a vehicle accident or a fall. You should also contact your doctor for any new occurrences of pain, especially if you experience any of the following symptoms, as these can indicate a serious medical condition:
- Numbness, weakness, or tingling in your legs
- Trouble walking or standing
- Extreme or persistent pain that interferes with your daily activity
- Pain that persists or worsens when lying down
- Loss of control of your bowels or bladder
How To Relieve Lower Back Pain: The Best Treatments To Ease Your Pain Woes
A variety of lower back pain treatment options exist, some requiring a prescription or doctor’s referral, some for which we recommend consulting your doctor first depending upon your condition, and some you can safely try at home. We’ll look in more detail at the most widely recommended treatments.
Lower Back Pain Treatment At Home
At-home treatments effectively relieve chronic lower back pain as well as acute pain needing attention before an upcoming doctor’s visit.
Medication often provides relief by lessening the pain sensation or lessening inflammation causing the pain.
Consult your doctor or local pharmacist before trying any medications while pregnant or with any medical conditions, as some medications may be contraindicated for your condition. Inform them if you currently take medications since your current regimen may not mix well with certain new medications.
The best over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for lower back pain are ibuprofen, naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin. Combining NSAIDs is dangerous, so try them one at a time until you find one that works best for you.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) also effectively treats pain. Pregnant women looking for non-prescription pain medication typically reach for Tylenol since NSAIDs are contraindicated for them.
Additional non-prescription options include topical pain relief creams, gels, and patches. Some contain menthol, CBD, or arnica as natural pain relievers, and some contain Lidocaine as a pain-numbing agent.
If over-the-counter treatments prove ineffective for you, you may seek a prescription remedy. Your doctor will likely walk you through a mobility test and run imaging (X-ray or MRI) before prescribing any stronger medications such as a muscle relaxer, a prescription-strength topical, or a cortisone shot. Discuss potential side effects for these treatments before taking them.
2. Ice and Heat
Ice reduces any swelling or inflammation present and numbs the pain sensation, while heat relaxes your muscles and increases your circulation.
ALWAYS start with ice at the onset of acute pain because heat will inflame and worsen an injury if applied within the first 48 hours.
You should apply ice for the first 24–48 hours that you experience pain — 10–20 minutes on then 10–20 minutes off for several sessions per day. You can use an ice pack, bag of ice, frozen veggies, whatever you have at home. After the first 48 hours, you can switch to heat using the same interval process with a heating pad, hot water bottle, or heat pack.
With chronic pain, you can start with heat rather than ice. Use trial and error to determine whether ice, heat, or alternating both provides the most relief for you. You can consult your doctor for guidance concerning your specific condition.
Applying ice or heat directly to your skin can cause damage to your skin, so always use a towel or fabric wrap or covering. NEVER sleep with heat on your back, no matter how soothing it feels, since the covering can slip off in your sleep.
In the absence of a heating pad or pack, you can take a hot shower or warm bath to apply moist heat to your back. Just know that the bath will cool down over time and lose its effect.
Please do NOT use a hot tub while pregnant because prolonged heat can harm a fetus. For the same reason, if you use any heating method for your back, avoid going for more than 10–15 minutes at a time. It’s better to err on the side of caution, even when applying the heat to your back.
3. Stress Reduction and Positive Thinking
Endorphin release can block pain signals as well as alleviate stress and anxiety. A few options for lowering your stress level and improving your mood include:
- Meditation: Slow, controlled breathing and mental focus can reduce the experience of pain as well as foster relaxation and stress relief. Some people take it a step further and engage in meditative prayer, which can add an extra element of peace and comfort.
- Activities That Make You Happy: Performing a few activities daily that you enjoy will boost your mood, release endorphins, and take your mind off the pain; this can include grabbing lunch with a friend, playing with your dog, doing an art project, or even just laughing with family or at a funny tv show.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This form of short-term therapy gears toward changing your pattern of thinking and your perception of life difficulties. You learn to regulate your emotions and improve your problem-solving skills, which will help you to rethink how you view your pain or how you manage pain
Even if your lower back pain makes you want to stay in bed all day, you need to keep moving to maintain your ROM and keep your muscles from stiffening.
Try to stick to your usual routine or a scaled-back version of it as much as you comfortably can — just basic activities like walking your dog, light housework, or working (depending on your job).
For a little extra action, swimming is a great low-impact exercise for lower back pain because it takes the weight off your spine while allowing you to build up strength and flexibility.
Lower Back Pain Exercises At Home
The perfect lower back exercise to perform at home, stretching will provide fast relief as well as prevent further occurrences by keeping you flexible. Try out these 10 stretches to ease lower back pain, paying close attention to the images showing the proper form for each move.
Yoga is a great low-impact stretching activity with slow, controlled movements that strengthen the body and build flexibility. Some of the stretching techniques relieve back pain quickly, while the deep breathing techniques trigger endorphin release, which fosters relaxation and alleviates stress.
YouTube offers videos and channels, such as the Yoga with Adriene channel, for various yoga classes and yoga pose tutorials. Some in-person yoga studios and independent instructors also post video classes and live-streamed classes on their websites or social media pages. You can find yoga practices online for all levels and circumstances, including prenatal yoga, yoga for cramps/PMS, yoga for lower back pain, yoga to relieve sciatica, and yoga hip-openers.
If your pain level prevents activity, lower back pain exercise for you may involve just sitting upright on a physioball. This provides relief while also engaging and strengthening your core muscles so you experience less pain in the future.
How To Relieve Lower Back Pain While Sleeping
Adequate sleep is just as important to lower back pain relief as staying mobile. Lack of restorative sleep due to pain can lead to an increased pain experience, creating a vicious cycle.
Our bodies need 7–8 hours of sleep per night to function properly because the majority of the body’s rest/recover/recharge phase occurs while we sleep — recovery from an illness, injury healing, even muscle-building. So sleep is crucial. Focusing on how you sleep can shed light on how to relieve your lower back pain while sleeping and how to prevent future issues.
To maintain proper spinal alignment while lying down, you need a medium-firm mattress no older than 8 years with no sagging in the middle. The maximum shelf life of a mattress is 10 years.
You need a supportive enough pillow to keep your back and neck straight, keeping your spine in alignment regardless of your sleep position.
Sleep on your side with your knees bent and a pillow placed between your legs to keep your full spine in alignment and relieve lower back pain. This position works for most low back pain issues, including pregnancy back pain.
However, depending on your condition you may benefit from a different position. People also tend to switch positions in their sleep, especially if they aren’t feeling painful at the moment and subconsciously change to their default position. Learning all the best sleeping positions (and pillow positions) for lower back pain will help you make appropriate adjustments.
How to Relieve Lower Back Pain With Help from Alternative Therapy Pros
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to relieve your lower back pain at home, you need a little hands-on help from someone more knowledgeable. The following complementary therapies involve a practitioner working with your body’s natural efforts to self-correct and self-heal:
Sometimes your doctor will prescribe physical therapy for your lower back pain. Some physical therapists will require a doctor’s referral, but some will treat without one. In either case, they will perform an assessment first.
Your physical therapist will develop an individualized plan for your specific condition, symptoms, and pain level. They take you through various techniques for relieving your pain while correcting your posture and form along the way. They’ll also show you techniques you can work on at home between sessions or after you’ve completed your course for continued treatment and prevention.
Acupuncture is the practice of applying needles to specific energy points on your body to treat a certain condition or imbalance. Inserting needles into certain points for a specific length of time supposedly restores energy flow and corrects imbalanced Qi. These needles theoretically also target the nervous system to relieve pain.
Scientific evidence showing exactly how acupuncture relieves lower back pain is inconclusive, with some findings even suggesting it may merely possess a placebo effect. Still, most studies agree that it does reduce pain at least a little and bears minimal risk to clients.
Massage relieves pain by loosening stiff muscles, releasing painful trigger points, relaxing tight connective tissue, and improving circulation.
It also promotes relaxation by triggering your nervous system’s rest/recover/recharge response and by stimulating endorphin release.
Chiropractors perform physical adjustments to your spine to realign it and improve your mobility, which reduces stiffness and decreases pain.
Will You Need Surgery To Fix Lower Your Back Pain?
Most people don’t need a surgical fix for their lower back pain, especially if they experience musculoskeletal pain. However, some injuries or conditions may require surgery if no other treatments prove effective. You should work on a treatment plan with your doctor and discuss a referral to a specialist for consultation on surgical options or a long-term pain management plan if you don’t improve over time.
How To Prevent Lower Back Pain and Avoid Needing Treatment
Prevention is always better (and less costly) than treatment. If you wish to keep lower back pain at bay then you want to decrease your odds of developing pain in the first place.
1. Eat Away Lower Back Pain
Eating healthier allows you to maintain a healthy weight, which will lessen the burden of support on your spine and ease pressure on your lower back.
Eat a diet high in nutrients that strengthen your bones to fortify against medical conditions that can arise from the weakening and thinning of your bone tissue:
- Calcium: dairy, green leafy veggies, fish with edible bones (sardines, canned salmon), almonds, seeds, calcium-fortified foods
- Phosphorus: dairy, beans, poultry, seafood
- Vitamin D: seafood, cod liver oil, eggs, mushrooms, vitamin D-fortified foods
An anti-inflammatory diet can also reduce the inflammation in your body and lessen or prevent pain. Anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Fruits, especially berries
- Veggies, especially green leafy ones
- Whole grains
- Plant-based proteins
- Fatty fish
- Fresh herbs and spices
Foods to avoid that trigger an inflammatory response in your body include:
- Fried, greasy foods
- Refined carbs, such as white bread
- High fructose corn syrup
- Any processed foods
- Foods with added salt and sugar
2. Quit Smoking To Quit Lower Back Pain
Scientists haven’t discovered the correlation yet, but numerous studies show that smokers are prone to back pain, neck pain, and other pain issues.
3. Stay Active and Chase the Pain Away
Maintain a regular exercise regimen to improve your flexibility and strength as your lower back pain lessens or heals, or even if you haven’t experienced back pain yet.
Incorporate into your workout regimen strengthening exercises for your back muscles, as well as the abdominal, pelvic, and hip muscles that support your lower back.
If you choose weight training as your strengthening exercise, keep a few things in mind:
- Start light and work your way up to heavier weights
- Don’t overexert yourself
- Maintain proper form
- Lessen the weight or lose it entirely if you start experiencing any pain that feels sharp or off
Muscle fatigue and injury pain are two completely different things; that “no pain, no gain” mantra does NOT refer to the latter type of pain. Bodyweight exercise produces results too, so if necessary wait until you’re well enough to gradually add weight to your workout.
The following aerobics exercises prove effective at various stages of recovery, post-recovery, or just as prevention for strengthening your body:
- Water aerobics
- Bicycling or stationary bike
- Walking, jogging, or running
- Elliptical or step machine
If you’re in recovery or recently recovered, your doctor or physical therapist can advise you about which exercises to engage in, how often, and to what extent.
4. Proper Posture For Your Lower Back Health
Whether sitting, standing, or walking, maintain proper posture to keep your spine in alignment as much as possible. Keep your back straight rather than slouched, your shoulders lowered rather than shrugged, and your head level rather than hung low or inclined upward.
When lifting heavy loads, squat down first and then straighten at the knees on your way up. NEVER bend and straighten at the waist to lift a load.
5. Change Your Shoes to Prevent Back Pain
Your everyday footwear affects your posture as well as your lower back health. Your shoes should fit properly and offer you proper support.
High heels place more pressure on your lower back and make your foundation less stable. You should avoid them if you suffer from any lower back pain, but even if you just have risk factors you should wear lower heels or forgo heels altogether.
If you insist on wearing high heels, only wear them for short periods and only at your destination; wear different shoes while in-transit, and keep your heels either in your car or in your bag.
Flats can also contribute to back pain, especially for pregnant women. Overall, your shoes should always have good arch support.
6. Make Your Workspace Work For You
Whether you work from home or outside your home, you spend a large part of your day working, which can create opportunities for lower back problems if you aren’t careful.
At your desk, keep the items you use most frequently close to you so you aren’t bending or twisting to reach for them. Keep larger or weightier objects far enough out of reach that you have to stand to get them to avoid lifting them from an awkward position.
Acquire an adjustable chair that offers support for your back, keeps your knees level with your hips, and allows your feet to rest flat on the floor. You can also use a lumbar support pillow or a rolled-up towel placed at your lower back if you need extra support.
Position your computer with the top of the screen at eye level so you aren’t holding your head above or below a level position to look at your screen.
If you sit all day for work, make sure to stand up, stretch, and walk around in intervals throughout your shift. Conversely, if you stand all day for work, make sure to take short sitting breaks.
You should also consider a special ergonomic floor mat designed to offer extra support and shock absorption if you stand for work.
What About Lower Back Pain Relief Products? Massage Gun, Anyone?
You’ll find many lower back pain products on the market, such as back braces, massagers, and electrotherapy units such as TENS units. But your doctor should diagnose your specific condition and point you in the right direction before you attempt to utilize any of these products.
Outlook for Lower Back Pain Sufferers: A Future of Relief
Regardless of the cause, lower back pain feels terrible and can make daily life a struggle.
But now that you know how to relieve lower back pain, as well as causes, risk factors, and prevention, you can start to regain some control.
If you haven’t yet, get a diagnosis soon so you can discuss treatment options with your doctor. If you already know your condition and just need some relief, try one of the at-home treatment methods or alternative therapies we mentioned. In either case, start changing your habits and routine for long-term pain management and prevention.
Whether you suffer from acute or chronic pain, we sincerely hope that you discover the best remedy for your condition. You don’t have to live with stress, anxiety, and discomfort. You CAN experience joy and peace while managing your pain. And you don’t have to go it alone.
Assemble your team.
Start with your primary doctor or a specialist. Maybe add a physical therapist, or a massage therapist and/or acupuncturist that you love. Find work-out buddies or create a yoga squad. Turn to your family for moral support and accountability. Adopt a pet to keep you active. You can even join a virtual fitness group or chronic pain support group.
Whatever your pain management plan looks like, incorporate community. Then move forward with confidence and perseverance.