Your aching back

Your back. It’s important for almost every movement you make throughout the day.

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that fact of anatomy until something goes wrong and they suffer a back injury. Then they wish they could roll back the clock and take their back for granted again.

Usually, backs get better after they’re hurt. And even more importantly, there are steps you can take to prevent that injury in the first place.

For people younger than 45, back pain is the most common cause of disability. Many things can cause that pain. Poor muscle tone and being overweight or obese can raise the risk of back strain. Improper twisting or lifting can send your back into painful spasms. Just getting older can make a back injury more likely.

If you do hurt your back, simple home remedies can relieve most back pain. It takes some patience, but if you care for your back correctly, you should feel better within six weeks after the injury.

Rest in bed as little as possible—a few days at most, experts say. Too much bed rest weakens your muscles and could slow your recovery. Get up and move around as soon as you can.

For the first two days, use ice or cold compresses. It may help to ease your back pain. Wrap a towel around a bag of ice and place it against the painful area for up to 20 minutes. You can also use a bag of frozen vegetables.

If you still have pain after two days, soothe your muscles with heat. Try a heating pad on its lowest setting, take a warm shower or soak in a warm bath.

Over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medicines may also help. Either of these can reduce muscle and joint inflammation and relieve pain. Talk with your healthcare provider about the right medicine for you.

But in some cases your back pain may require medical attention. Call your healthcare provider if:

  • Your back pain started after you fell or were struck.
  • You feel weakness, numbness or tingling in your legs.
  • You have bladder or bowel problems.
  • Your pain is getting worse or doesn't go away after a few weeks of home care.

Your healthcare provider will probably ask you when the pain started. It will help if you can describe what makes the pain worse and what makes it better — like a specific activity, motion or treatment.

Even if you've had back trouble in the past, you can make your back stronger to avoid future problems:

  • Maintain good posture. Don't slouch when standing or sitting. When standing, keep your weight balanced on your feet.
  • Sit in a chair that supports your lower back. If you don't have a supportive chair, place a small pillow or rolled-up towel against the curve in your lower back.
  • Exercise. Strong back muscles can reduce your risk for injury. Strong arms, legs, and belly muscles can reduce the work your back has to do. Low-impact aerobic exercise, like walking or stationary biking, increases the flow of blood and oxygen to your back muscles. Choose your exercises carefully. For example, running may not be good for a weak back. Swimming and water aerobics support your back while you exercise. Walking is also a good choice. If you've had a serious back injury, you should talk with your healthcare provider before you start exercising regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. This will lessen the strain on your back. Your healthcare provider can tell you if you need to lose weight.
  • Learn how to lift properly. When you bend to pick something up — even a child — bend at your knees and keep your back straight. You may have to squat or kneel. This puts the stress on your legs. They are stronger than your back. When you pick up an object and carry it, hold it close to your body. The farther it is from the middle of your body, the more it strains your back.
  • Pay attention to pain or twinges. If you feel back pain during an activity, stop and rest. Your body may be trying to prevent you from harming your back.

For more information on this and other health topics, visit University Health's Health Library.

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