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Back pain relief

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

Back pain will affect most of us at some time, but it usually improves on its own within a few days or weeks. Musculoskeletal back pain is the most common type, and it typically occurs in the lower back. This is the most vulnerable area to injury, and it can arise when you have lifted something heavy with incorrect positioning, or over time from overuse or incorrect posture.

Doctors call this injury mechanical back pain. It mostly affects those aged between 40 and 60 years, and it can affect work and usual activities while you recover. Most cases are managed without seeing your doctor. It’s best to avoid strenuous activity and treat yourself with gentle stretches or hot and cold compresses, plus painkillers if needed.

Here at Healthwords, we will always tell you that prevention is better than cure. But once you have a musculoskeletal back injury, you will want to do all you can to quickly get back on your feet and be free from pain. We’ve got some suggestions for you.

Doctor’s advice

Treatment: products

Pain and stiffness can often occur shortly after a muscle injury to the back. Acetaminophen is a safe and sensible place to start when reaching for back pain relief, with relatively few risks or side effects if taken as instructed. It’s well-tolerated and may be sufficient for occasional mild pain that occurs for just a brief time. It’s also safe in pregnancy. It should be avoided in those with a known liver condition.

Another good first-line option is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) which are a class of medications that work on both pain and inflammation. These drugs have a similar effect on pain as acetaminophen but can be particularly effective in cases of back pain where mild inflammation causes much of the pain.

NSAIDs can help to relieve the swelling and inflammation – especially in musculoskeletal injuries – that cause back pain and loss of function. These drugs include ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. Stronger versions are available on prescription.

Taken regularly for a few days, NSAIDs can be very effective. They should be taken with food to minimize any irritation to the stomach lining or reflux issues. NSAIDs should be avoided in pregnancy. They should also be avoided in those with NSAID-sensitive asthma, any long-term kidney conditions, or those with a stomach ulcer. Aspirin is not suitable for those under 16.

A proton pump inhibitor (PPI) may be recommended by your doctor or pharmacist to protect the stomach lining if you suffer from excess acid or acid reflux. Some of these are available without prescription, such as esomeprazole (Nexium) or omeprazole (Prilosec).

Alternatively, if you want to avoid oral medications, you can try creams or gels that contain pain relievers such as camphor or menthol (Bengay).

How can I prevent back pain?

Strengthening your core muscles through conditioning training is one of the best things you can do for your back. It doesn’t just give you six-pack abs (who wouldn’t want that?); it strengthens the paraspinal muscles that hug the spine and the deep abdominal muscles you can’t see, which support your spine while it’s under the stress of everyday living. Your posture will improve, leaving you standing taller and straighter. Pilates is particularly good for this, or specific core exercise programs and weight training.

Keeping muscles stretched and flexible also keeps them in good health. Yoga and swimming are very good for this. Make sure you take time to warm up and cool down after any exercise session or period where you expect the back to be put to work. Even a spinal stretch after you get up can help – all vertebrates, including your cat or dog, take time for a good morning stretch

Learning the right lifting techniques can help protect your back. The techniques in a nutshell are keeping a wide stance, maintaining a straight back, and bending at the knees to keep an even distribution. Do not twist while you lift.

Adjusting your workplace set-up may improve posture to protect your back, such as keeping your computer screen at eye level, forearms and hands at waist height and rested on the desk, and hips, knees, and ankles at right angles, with feet flat on the floor.

Maintaining healthy bones is a lifelong commitment and includes a calcium- and vitamin D-rich diet (or supplements) and regular exercise. Alternate cardiovascular activity that gets you out of breath with high impact sports that improve bone density.

When should I see my doctor?

If your pain is not improving after a few weeks despite care and exercise at home, if the pain is severe or getting worse, or if it is affecting your daily activities, you should see your doctor to discuss it.

Some signs that suggest you should book an urgent appointment with your doctor are lack of control when urinating or defecating, numbness around the buttocks and anal area, numbness in your legs, weakness of your lower legs, fevers or night sweats without obvious cause, weight loss, or back pain that wakes you up at night. If you have back pain and you are under 18 or over 50 years of age, you should request an urgent appointment with your doctor to discuss the cause.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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