Lower back pain is a widespread problem, causing more global disability than any other condition. Up to 80 percent of adults will experience low back pain at least once in their lives.
People can also experience pain in other areas of the back, including the middle and upper back.
The back muscles and spine support much of the body’s weight. A person uses the muscles for everyday movements, including sitting, standing, and walking.
Over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, may help relieve pain. For those who wish to try home remedies, some of the following treatments might help:
Exercise to get muscles moving
It can be challenging to get up and move when back pain strikes. However, a short walk, yoga, water exercise, or another low-impact activity can often help alleviate back pain.
Exercise may loosen tense muscles and release endorphins, which are the brain’s natural painkillers.
A person can also consider starting a daily exercise program, including strength training and stretching, to help keep muscles flexible and strong.
Regular exercise may prevent future episodes of back pain that are due to tight muscles.
Use heat and cold
Studies show that heat and cold are effective ways to get relief from back pain.
Ice packs are most beneficial when a person uses them directly after an injury, such as a strain. Applying an ice pack wrapped in a towel directly to the back can reduce inflammation.
Cold may also provide a numbing effect for sudden, intense back pain. A person can use cold packs designed for pain relief, or in a pinch, use a bag of ice or frozen vegetables covered with a cloth to protect the skin from frostbite. It is best not to apply ice for more than 20 minutes at a time.
A heating pad can also relieve stiff or achy muscles. People should be sure to read and follow the instructions on any heating pad and test the temperature carefully to ensure it is not too hot.
If a heating pad is unavailable, a person can use a hot water bottle or heat a cloth bag of uncooked rice in the microwave.
People should take care not to burn the skin with ice or heat.
The following stretches may help relieve back pain. People should hold each stretch for 30 seconds or as long as it feels comfortable.
1. Touching the toes
In addition to stretching the hamstrings, bending forward to reach your toes will help loosen the muscles in the lower back.
2. Cobra Pose
Lying on your stomach, with your hands face down beside the shoulders, gently lift your chest up so that the top of your head points toward the ceiling.
3. Cat-Cow Pose
Beginning on your hands and knees, slowly alternate between arching your back toward the ceiling and dipping it toward the floor.
4. Child’s Pose
Sitting on the heels with your knees hip-width apart, lean forward to place your head on the floor, stretching your arms out in front of your head.
Apply a pain-relief cream
A variety of pain-relief creams that can provide some relief from back pain are available in pharmacies and online.
Creams that contain capsaicin, a compound found in hot peppers, may also help relieve pain. One study found capsaicin cream to be helpful in treating osteoarthritis pain.
Pain-relief creams that contain menthol have a cooling effect that can temporarily dull back pain. One study suggests that applying menthol to the skin can desensitize pain receptors in the body. However, using too much menthol can cause a person to be more sensitive to pain.
Arnica is a homeopathic remedy that people can apply directly to the skin to treat muscle pain, swelling, bruising, and minor injuries.
Many pharmacies sell Arnica creams and gels. It is also available online.
While there is little scientific research to prove that Arnica is effective, it has a low risk of side effects and some people may find it helpful.
One case report found that arnica helped relieve chronic osteoarthritis pain when combined with acupuncture and massage.
Wearing shoes that do not fit or that offer no support could cause muscle strains in the back, legs, and even neck.
High heels, for example, can throw off the body’s alignment, leading to lower back pain. One study found a link between wearing high heels for long periods and having back pain.
Wearing shoes that are very flat can also put added strain on the feet and back.
If a person experiences recurrent back pain, they should consider switching to shoes that fit correctly and support the feet. A podiatrist or foot specialist can help a person find proper footwear if necessary.
Make workstation changes
Improper posture due to slouching or straining at a desk may cause back pain and other muscle aches. Using ergonomics to modify a workstation can help reduce pain due to poor posture.
A person should ensure their computer screen is at eye level and that their chair is at the correct height.
Proper ergonomics at work may help reduce back pain and other injuries, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States.
One study in Denmark found that people who worked in nursing homes or home care had less lower back pain after changes in ergonomics, combined with behavioral therapy and physical training.
If a person does any lifting for their job, they should squat and use their legs — not their back — for support. It is best to ask for help or use trolleys when moving very heavy objects.
Get enough sleep
Research shows that sleep disturbances could make pain worse. Lack of sleep can also affect how much pain a person can tolerate, according to another study.
An uncomfortable mattress, pillows that are the wrong size, or simply not getting adequate sleep could trigger back pain.
Most adults should be getting 7–9 hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Proper comfort and alignment of the back is essential for sleep quality and avoiding back pain in the morning.
Makes sure the pillow is supportive enough to keep the back and neck in a straight line. People who sleep on their side should place an extra pillow between their knees.
A person should speak to a doctor if lack of sleep continues to be a problem. Sleep disorders are often treatable. Getting enough rest may help relieve pain and can improve a person’s overall health.
Manage or reduce stress
Stress can trigger muscle tension and painful spasms, including in the back. If long-term stress or a traumatic event seems to have caused back pain, a person can try stress-relief techniques, such as:
- Mindfulness meditation. One study showed that mindfulness-based stress reduction improved back pain. Mindfulness involves being aware of what the body is doing and using meditation techniques to assist with the pain.
- Deep breathing. Taking deep breaths in and out for several minutes can calm the body’s stress response.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. This involves tensing and relaxing muscles in the body, focusing on one muscle group at a time. Lying on their back, a person can start with their feet and gradually move up to the shoulders.
- Guided imagery. This involves focusing on specific mental images to bring about a feeling of relaxation. One study found guided imagery and music helps with work-related chronic stress.
- Yoga. Yoga focuses on particular poses and breathing and can help with relaxation, especially when practiced regularly. One review found yoga to be an effective stress management tool.
Many smartphone apps are available to guide a person through relaxation techniques and meditation.
When to see a doctor
People can often treat back pain with home remedies and some patience. However, a person should speak to a doctor about chronic or severe back pain.
A doctor may recommend physical therapy, medication, or other treatments. People who have existing health conditions or who take regular medications should speak to a doctor before trying any herbs or supplements.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not monitor supplements for purity or quality, so it is essential to research reputable companies first.