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Persistent back pain

Everyday back pain should get better and go away entirely within about six weeks. If it doesn’t, or if it gets worse, you should talk with a doctor. There are many ways to treat persistent pain, depending on your specific condition and preferences. Some options are outlined below. Work with your doctor to find what’s right for you. 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


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 persistent pain, it is highly likely that your back has lost strength over the years. This is particularly true if you find yourself limiting or eliminating desired activities. Loss of strength in your back requires more intense back exercises to regain strength and function. Regaining strength in your low back is hard to do on your own. There are specialized rehabilitation clinics that can help.

Stress management

Back pain can get worse from stress and worrying about your finances, family or job because your body is under a heightened state of tension. Learning to manage everyday stress can help your recovery. Take time to relax.

For help learning to manage everyday stress, interact with your free virtual coach. The experience takes just 15-20 minutes. If stress continues to be a problem, talk with your doctor or therapist.

Physical therapy

The latest research tells us that rigorous physical therapy is often the most effective treatment for patients who are not getting better on their own. This kind of treatment builds muscle strength. This approach should be tried before thinking about invasive and potentially harmful procedures that may not help.

Major surgeries such as spinal fusion and disc replacement have much greater risks and complications. Exercise and time often work better. After years of research, we now know that lifestyle changes and self-management of back pain can be the best treatment of all.

Many physical therapy practices have experienced great success in reducing back-pain and have patients that are thrilled with the results. Physicians Neck & Back Center in Minnesota asked two of their patients to relate their experiences on camera in an effort to help others. View Maryand Ben’s videos to learn more about how physical therapy can help you.

If you are interested in physical therapy, talk to your doctor about referring you to a back-pain focused physical therapy practice in your area.

Imaging / x-ray

You probably don’t need an x-ray, MRI or CT scan. There are many pain-producing tissues in the back, including muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints and disks. Most of the time we can’t identify the exact cause of the pain. Even sophisticated tests like MRIs and CT scans aren’t of much help. In fact, MRIs are often abnormal in people who don’t have any back pain at all.

If your doctor thinks your pain is due to trauma or other medical conditions, he or she may order an imaging test. In that case, imaging is ordered to rule out the existence of those underlying causes. Imaging should not be recommended (including CT, MRI, and x-ray) for patients with non-specific low back pain.


The latest research tells us that rigorous physical therapy is often the most effective treatment for patients who are not getting better on their own. This approach should be tried before thinking about invasive and potentially harmful procedures that may not help.

Surgery is rarely needed for back pain. It is more effective for severe, radiating leg pain that does not improve with time. It may also be needed for weakness that gets worse. If you do need surgery, your doctor will consult with a spine expert.

If you have health insurance through HealthPartners, your provider will refer you to a Medical Spine Center prior to to seeing a surgeon.

Back exercises

Three quick exercises to help stretch your back.

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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