We use our back for pretty much everything. Even simple activities usually require some effort on its part, and even simple activities can cause a problem. The most common back problems are muscle pulls and strains. Although quite common, they can be severe.
The following steps can help relieve discomfort and swelling due to a tight, aching back.
(NOTE: If you are experiencing pain, weakness/numbness in the legs, or a loss of bowel/bladder control, see your doctor without delay.)
First Steps to Pain Relief
- Lie down on a firm surface
- Use pillows to support proper spinal alignment
- Use ice, not heat, to reduce swelling
- Apply slight compression
- Ask your doctor about OTC painkillers
- KNOW WHEN TO CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR
Although use and exercise are required to heal and strengthen the back after an injury, it is often a good idea to rest your back for a short amount of time immediately following a muscle pull or strain.The goal is to maintain the natural curve and alignment of the spine.
Lying down, on your back or side, is generally the best position to allow your back to rest. Many people find lying down on a firm surface, like a padded, carpeted floor, can help maximize the benefits of rest on relieving acute back pain. A couple of pillows under your knees, or between your knees if on your side, can also help. Your neck can be supported with a rolled up hand towel placed under the neck.
Immediately following a back injury, blood rushes to the damaged area. Although part of the body’s healing process, too much inflammation can cause increased pain and lengthen recovery time. Ice will reduce the amount of inflammation and speed up the healing process.
Generally, unless otherwise instructed by a physician, it is recommended to use ice instead of heat during the first 48 hours following an injury. Even though heat may feel better, heat increases blood flow and can cause greater inflammation, pain, and recovery time.
To ensure the maximum benefits of ice, and to avoid damage to the skin, make sure you apply ice correctly. Ice should never be in direct contact with the skin for long periods of time. Instead, wrap ice (ice pack/ice cubes/crushed ice) in a warm towel/pillowcase and place on the strained area for less than 15 minutes. To prepare a towel/pillowcase, place it in slightly warm water and wring dry. For additional benefits, use repeated ice treatments, about once every hour, for the first 48 hours following an injury.
Gentle compression can amplify the benefits of ice and speed up the recovery process. In addition to reducing inflammation and pain, compression can provide temporary support that helps you to move around more easily.
An elastic bandage is a great way to apply slight compression. Wrap it around the strained area and ensure it is not wrapped too tightly. If desired, the bandage can be wrapped over ice. In this case, remember the ice must be removed after 15 minutes.
Generally convenient and safe remedies for occasional minor pain, over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, or analgesics, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen, help combat inflammation and lessen discomfort. It’s essential, though, that before you resort to OTC drug options, you consult with your primary care physician. Like almost any drug, used improperly, OTC drugs can have serious and even deadly effects. Remember to ask again if you develop a new medical problem, begin taking a new prescription or OTC drug or supplement, become pregnant, or begin breast-feeding.
When taking an OTC analgesic, read and follow label directions carefully and do not exceed the recommended dose or take it more frequently without your doctor’s approval and supervision.
Know When to See a Doctor
In addition to muscle pulls and strains, there are numerous causes of back pain. Ligaments, joints and spinal discs can all be injured. It is important to know when an injury goes beyond your ability to treat yourself.
- Two to three days of bed rest does not improve your pain
- Intense spasms make it difficult to sit, stand, or do virtually anything
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Numbness, tingling, or other similar sensations
- It takes larger and larger amounts of medication to reduce your pain
Serious injuries that go untreated, or are treated incorrectly, can lead to further impairment and possibly irreparable damage. Just having one of these symptoms does not automatically mean that you will require major therapy, but it is best to let your primary care physician rule out serious spinal problems.