If you’re part of the 80 percent of adults who will experience lower back pain during your lifetime, you understand the frustration and disappointment that comes from canceled plans and a changed lifestyle. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that many of the 80 percent of American adults suffering from low back pain will also need to go to a physical therapist for physical therapy to treat their pain, making lower back problems not only frustrating, but also expensive. Low back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and one of the leading causes of missed days of work. It’s so common, in fact, that 25 percent of adults have experienced lower back pain some time over the last three months. Daily activities like work, exercise, and even sleep can be uncomfortable or downright impossible when you’re dealing with lower back pain. The majority of lower back pain is caused by strains and damage to your muscles and soft tissue, and there are four main secrets to back pain relief. We know that you want to know the secrets to lower back muscle pain relief, but it’s important to first understand what lower back pain is, what causes it, and how you can treat it and prevent it.
You might think you have an idea about what exactly constitutes your lower back, but the answer is actually very specific. The lower back consists of your lumbar spine, which includes five vertebrae labeled from L1, which is highest on your spine, to L5, which is the lowest. These five vertebrae are responsible for supporting a majority of the body’s weight, so they increase in size as you move closer to your tailbone. They also protect your spinal cord from nerve damage and serious side effects. Part of the reason why our lower backs are so commonly injured is because of the large amount of weight they bear and our inactive western lifestyles. A soft disc rests between each vertebrae, providing cushioning and shock absorption as we move.
Did you know that there is more than one type of lower back pain? It’s true! There are three types of lower back pain, including acute, subacute, and chronic pain. Acute lower back pain comes on suddenly and lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Acute lower back pain is the most common type of lower back pain, and it tends to resolve on its own with rest, ice, and self-care. Lower back pain is classified as subacute pain when it lasts between four and twelve weeks. Subacute pain can result from a more significant injury or strain or an unresolved acute injury. Chronic back pain, the most frustrating type of lower back pain, lasts for twelve weeks or longer and can linger long after the initial injury or issue has been resolved. About 20 percent of people who experience acute lower back pain will eventually experience chronic back pain.
Acute back pain is usually caused by an awkward or unexpected movement, such as bending over to pick something up, lifting a heavy object off the floor, or sleeping in a strange position, and it is generally resolved with conservative treatment like rest, activity restriction, icing, heat, bed rest and over the counter anti-inflammatory pain medication. Acute back pain primarily results from muscle and soft tissue strains and injuries, so if you are looking for lower back pain muscle relief, you are most likely suffering from acute pain. Chronic back pain is caused by any number of injuries, degenerative conditions, or spinal deformities, including herniated discs, spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, and more.
Some people with chronic back pain may also experience muscle pain and soreness due to muscle fatigue surrounding their spinal injury. While many types of lower back pain can be relieved temporarily with over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, your doctor or physical therapist may need to help you manage your pain with other types of treatment if these are not working. Difficulty resolving lower back pain with conservative treatment can sometimes indicate an underlying cause that may be more serious, such as an injury to the vertebrae or discs. Depending on the cause, back pain treatment will vary.
While we often hear of a friend of a friend who has had back surgery, surgical intervention for back pain is relatively uncommon. Most back pain treatments are very conservative, because when you’re dealing with your spine, it’s best not to be any more invasive than absolutely necessary. Your doctor will likely give you medical advice to help ease your low back pain with one or several of the following treatments to try and remedy your lower back pain prior to trying more aggressive forms of treatment options such as painkillers or steroid injections.
- Rest: Taking a break from your normal workout routine, especially weight lifting, will be helpful while you manage acute lower back pain from a strain or overuse. However, don’t use this as an excuse to lay in bed all day; gentle movement will help reduce stiffness and pain.
- Ice and heat: We know that everyone loves a heating pad, but applying heat alone will do more harm than good. Applying an ice pack or cold packs for 20 minutes at a time will reduce muscle tension and lessen pain. However, using too much heat will increase swelling and make the problem worse, so make sure that you stick to the guidelines and don’t overdo it.
- Gentle exercise: A gentle exercise program, like light yoga, walking, stretching, and other gentle workouts, can help reduce stiffness and ease the stress on your spine. If you’d like to do physical activity at home but aren’t sure what movements are safe, try joining an online fitness community like Body FX, which offers a huge library of online workouts and individualized coaching that can help you decide what would be most beneficial.
- Chiropractic care: Chiropractic care, or spinal adjustments, is a non-invasive type of treatment that can be effective at resolving pain that occurs as the result of a sudden movement or poor positioning, resulting in the body coming out of its natural alignment. Make sure you only receive chiropractic care from a licensed chiropractor health care provider.
While some lower back pain is caused by degenerative conditions and genetics, most lower back pain can be prevented. Lower back pain resulting from muscle strains and injury is especially preventable. To prevent lower back pain, consider:
- Lifting with your legs: If you’ve ever tried to pick something heavy up off the floor and ended up throwing your back out, you know the importance of lifting with your legs. Rather than hinging forward at the waist, squat down slowly to get the item, then press firmly through your feet to use your legs to lift.
- Working out your core: Your core muscles (abdominal, glutes, and lower back muscles) are responsible for the stability of your spine and your entire body, so strengthening them can help prevent lower back pain. If you’re not sure where to start, safe, effective core workouts can be found online at websites like Body FX.
- Losing weight: We know that the lower back bears the majority of the body’s weight, so it stands to reason that lightening the load would help reduce lower back pain. If you have extra weight that you can lose, you’ll likely notice an improvement in your back pain by losing even a few pounds.
- Working on your posture: As we sit at our desks and in our cars throughout the day, most of us are slouching in unsupportive chairs, throwing our natural spinal alignment out of whack. Take breaks throughout the day to consciously focus on sitting up straight with your abdominal muscles activated and your shoulders back, and try to find an ergonomic chair that encourages good posture for long periods of time.
The Four Secrets
You’ve waited so patiently, and now it’s time to reveal the four secrets of lower back pain muscle relief. None of these secrets is a magic bullet, and some might even qualify as common sense, but they are often left out of the conversation surrounding treatment.
- Stretch your hamstrings: Those big muscles running down the backs of your thighs, also known as your hamstrings, play a major role in lower back pain. Tightness in the hamstrings causes pulling on the lower back and sacroiliac joints, causing additional pain and stiffness. Stretching twice daily for 30 to 60 seconds at a time can help reduce lower back pain, but it’s not as simple as bending over at the waist and reaching for your toes if you’re struggling with lower back issues. Try lying on your back on the floor with your buttocks as close to the wall as you can get and your legs stretched up against the wall. Try to straighten your knees as much as possible, feeling the stretch down the backs of the legs. This minimizes strain on the low back.
- Teach your brain: Our bodies respond to physical causes of pain, but the way we perceive pain depends on our brains. Studies have shown that techniques such as mindfulness practices, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can help our brains relax, process pain differently, and may even help reduce the sensation of pain. Consider downloading a mindfulness or meditation app and practicing when you are feeling pain and need your muscles to relax.
- Do something fun: It seems unbelievably simple, but studies have shown that our perception of pain diminishes when we are doing something fun or enjoyable due to the rush of endorphins our brains receive. Lower back pain might limit your activities, but you can still find pleasure in things you enjoy, like watching a favorite tv show, enjoying a sunset, or catching up with an old friend.
- Get plenty of rest: Acute lower back pain caused by soft tissue sprains and injuries benefits tremendously from getting enough sleep. Why? Our bodies heal when we sleep, so if you’re not getting enough restorative rest, your recovery time will be much longer from a back injury.