Back pain often strikes when something’s amiss with the delicate column of bones, muscles, ligaments and joints that holds you up. But many other conditions, like strains, arthritis, hairline spine fractures and even kidney infections, can cause your back to throb.
What you can do
- Ice first, heat later. As a pain reliever, ice works great. It temporarily blocks pain signals and helps reduce swelling. Several times a day, lay an ice pack wrapped in a towel on the painful area for up to 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can use a bag of frozen peas or corn. During the first few days of home treatment, apply the ice pack as frequently as necessary. Later you may still want to use ice after exercise or physical activities. After about 48 hours, switch to moist heat to stimulate blood flow and reduce painful spasms. Dip a towel in very warm water, wring it out, then flatten and fold it. Lie on your stomach with pillows under your hips and ankles. Place the towel across the painful area, cover the towel with plastic wrap, then put a heating pad—set on medium—atop the plastic. Leave it on for up to 20 minutes. You can repeat this three or four times a day for several days.
- Perfect your posture. Look for the posture that places the least stress on your back. To do it, stand straight with your weight evenly balanced on both feet. Tilt your pelvis forward, then back, exaggerating the movement. Then settle into the position that feels most comfortable. Now “work your way up” your back, focusing on one area at a time. First concentrate on the area near your waist, then your chest area, and finally your neck and shoulders. Try to feel which position is least stressful and most comfortable. This is the position to maintain when you’re standing, walking, and beginning or ending any exercise.
- Rise and shine. Each morning before you get out of bed, lie on your back and slowly stretch your arms overhead. Gently pull your knees to your chest, one at a time. To rise, roll to the edge of your bed, turn on your side, put your knees over the edge, and use one arm to push yourself up as you let your feet swing to the floor. Once you’re on your feet, put your hands on your buttocks and lean back very slowly to stretch out your spine.
- Rub in some relief. Ask a partner to massage the aching area. If you want to use a “back rub” cream or ointment, go ahead, but use caution, as most topical creams produce skin irritation after a few applications. For a simple back-massage aid, stuff several tennis balls into a long sock, tie the end of the sock, and have your partner roll it over your back.
A natural boost
- Pick a pepper product. Your drugstore carries liniments that contain capsaicin, the heat-producing substance in hot peppers. Applied to your skin, capsaicin depletes nerve endings of a neurochemical called substance P. Researchers have found that substance P is essential for transmitting pain sensations to the brain, so when there’s less substance P in circulation, the pain meter is turned down a bit. Look for a cream or ointment containing 0.075% or 0.025% capsaicin. And be patient: You may have to use it for several weeks to feel the full effect. Stop using it if you begin to feel any skin irritation.
- Three or four times a day, take 500 milligrams of bromelain. Derived from pineapples, this enzyme promotes circulation, reduces swelling, and helps your body reabsorb the by-products of inflammation. Look for a strength between 1,200 and 2,400 MCU (milk-clotting units) or 720 and 1,440 GDU (gelatin-dissolving units). Wait for at least an hour after each meal before taking the bromelain, or it will work mainly in your gut instead of your muscles.
- Try taking one 250-milligram capsule of valerian four times a day. Some scientists claim that this herb’s active ingredient interacts with receptors in the brain to cause a sedating effect. Although sedatives are not generally recommended, valerian is much milder than any pharmaceutical product. (Valerian can also be made into a tea, but the smell is so strong—resembling overused gym socks—that capsules are vastly preferable.)