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First-time pain

Is this the first time that you’ve had back pain? You’ll be happy to know that most back pain doesn’t require treatment. It usually gets better little by little and goes away completely within six weeks. During that time it's best to stay active. Consider some of the options outlined below to help provide back pain relief. As always, if you have any of these symptoms call your doctor right away.

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever
  • Pain that keeps you up all night or is not relieved by lying down
  • Changes in controlling your bowel or bladder
  • Leg weakness that gets worse
  • Numbness and tingling in the upper part of your legs, along with back pain


Self-care

Recent studies show that bed rest is not needed for most back problems. In fact, staying in bed can worsen symptoms and delay recovery. What is helpful is moderate, steadily increasing activity that doesn’t make your pain much worse.

Getting back to work or your usual activities in a few days or less will help you recover quickly. You can expect some discomfort, but being active will prevent your back from becoming weak. Get back to all your usual activities as soon as you can. Remember that just because it hurts, it isn’t harming you. Activity is the key to getting better. Being active, such as by walking, helps you recover sooner.

Additionally, there is some evidence that heat may help reduce some back pain. Ice is not likely to do any harm, but it has not proven to help back pain. Until more studies are done, you might experiment to see what works best for you.


Exercise

Exercise and activity are keys to recovery. They can help prevent back problems from returning. To stay active, keep yourself in the best physical condition you can. Back pain can recur, so plan to improve your fitness now.

Start walking every day as soon as you can. Add other activities to your routine, such as swimming and biking. They may also provide good motion to the painful areas. Exercise consistently. Remember that it’s ok to work hard at this in spite of some discomfort.

If you have become deconditioned (lost strength in your back), you may need personalized, intensive back exercises to regain strength and function. A physical therapist or chiropractor can help you with exercises to increase your range of motion and make you more comfortable as you start to recover.


Posture and sleeping

Good posture and proper sleeping position helps keep the body aligned and reduces stress on back muscles and joints. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Change positions frequently.
  • When carrying things, keep loads close to the body.
  • Avoid prolonged bending.
  • When sitting, use a chair with enough lower back support. Put a pillow behind your back to reduce the stress of sitting. Limit how much time you sit.
  • Choose sleeping positions that reduce stress on your back. Place a pillow under your knees when lying on your back, or between your legs when lying on your side.

A physical therapist can make suggestions about how to move your body. You’ll learn about bending, lifting, how to improve daily activity, and how to build your spinal and overall fitness.


Medicine

In many cases, despite pain and discomfort, you will heal better if you do not use medicines. When needed, acetaminophen (Tylenol®) can ease back pain. Anti-inflammatory medicines can also be helpful. These include ibuprofen (Motrin® or Advil®), naproxen (Aleve®) and aspirin. You can get these medicines without a prescription.

Other medicines are rarely needed. Their side effects and risks are often worse than just waiting to get better by staying active and exercising. Narcotics can make the back pain better today. However, they can lead to prolonged difficulties or even worse pain in the future if taken over time. Contact your doctor if your pain is not improving.

Your physician may order a steroid injection in your spine of you have had pain radiating down your leg for more than 6 weeks, participated in a physical therapy program and continue to have pain that prevents you from participating in normal activities.


Back exercises

Three quick exercises to help stretch your back.

  • Pelvic tilt
  • Knee raise
  • Partial press-up

Pelvic tilt

Lie flat on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, body relaxed. Tighten the abdominal muscles. Tilt the pelvis so the curve of the small of the back is flat on the floor. Hold 10 seconds, then relax. Continue to breathe.

Pelvic tilt image

Repeat 10 times, 3–4 times each day.

Knee raise

Lie flat on your back, knees bent. Bring one leg slowly to your chest as shown. Hug your knee gently, then return to the start position. Repeat the exercise with other leg.

Knee raise image

Repeat 5 times with each leg, 3–4 times each day.

Partial press-up

Lie face down on a firm surface. Rest for a few minutes, relaxing completely. Raise your upper body and rest on your elbows. Let your lower back relax toward the floor. Relax your legs as much as you can. Hold position for 5-10 seconds. Return to the starting position.

Partial press-up image

Repeat 5 to 10 times, 3–4 times each day.


Decision support

Learn about how to get care for your back.

Find care for back pain.

How to use your benefits

Nurse Navigator is a free phone service. Member advocates can explain your benefits and treatment options. Call the Nurse Navigators from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday:

  • 952-883-5000
  • 800-883-2177
  • 952-883-5127 (TTY)

Talk about care options

The CareLine is a free phone service that’s staffed with registered nurses. The nurses can answer your questions and discuss treatment options. Call 24/7 for help:

  • 612-339-3663
  • 800-551-0859
  • 952-883-5474 (TYY)

Interactive tools

Dealing with stress
Learning to manage everyday stress can help you recover from back pain.

Getting active
Exercise and activity are keys to recovery.

Preventing pain

Need help managing or relieving pain? Download your free copy of the iBook from HealthPartners.

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