According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lower back pain is the most common pain reported by Americans, with more than 25% of adults experiencing it over the last three months.
Back pain is also one of the most common reasons to miss a day of school or work.
While people can experience pain anywhere in their back, it’s most common in the lumbar region, or lower back, which includes the five vertebrae that support a person’s upper body weight.
Low back pain can be debilitating, and can cause other symptoms, such as leg pain.
Some people experience a persistent, dull ache in their lower backs, while others have sharp, shooting, or radiating pains.
The everyday strain of sitting at a desk for long periods can result in low back pain.
Other common causes of low back pain include exercise, nerve compression conditions like sciatica, hereditary problems, age, and non-back-related issues like kidney infections or stones, endometriosis, or fibromyalgia.
No matter what’s causing your low back pain, you may be looking for ways to relieve your suffering.
First, prioritize seeing a healthcare provider, who can help you determine the cause of your low back pain and possible treatment options.
If your provider is OK with it, you can also try home remedies for back pain relief.
In this article, I’ll share remedies to relieve lower back pain, and when you should see a healthcare provider for your pain.
Remedies to Relieve Lower Back Pain
Exercise and movement
If you’re suffering from low back pain, staying active may feel counterintuitive.
But appropriate exercise and movement can both prevent back pain and help relieve it.
Building strong core muscles is one way to take the load off your back so you’re less likely to experience low back pain.
Gentle strengthening exercises such as yoga, pilates, or tai chi, can help strengthen and stretch your abdominal muscles, legs, and your hips, which can help improve or prevent back pain.
If you’re tempted to stay on the couch, know this: Studies suggest exercise treatment can improve back pain intensity anywhere from 10-50%!
You can even do some movements while lying down: Try lying on your back on the floor, bringing each knee, then both, to your chest a few times, or gently tilting your pelvis up.
Swimming can also help relieve back pain without straining already-sore muscles.
Avoid activities that make your pain worse to prevent back spasms and facilitate healing.
Sit-ups, toe-touches, leg lifts, and high impact activities like running or heavy weightlifting may make things worse.
If you’re in significant pain and not sure which exercises are best for you, seek medical advice.
A physical therapist can also help recommend exercises to improve low back pain.
Stretching your low back muscles is another way to improve acute low back pain.
One study reports weekly yoga classes or intensive stretching can be effective at both reducing low back pain and increasing mobility.
You won’t need any fancy tools to stretch your way to back relief.
Common yoga stretches such as child’s pose or a cat-cow stretch—or a basic knee-to-chest stretch—may provide lower back pain relief, especially if you have tight muscles.
You can also try gently twisting your spine while sitting down to loosen muscles and improve mobility. Avoid any movements that cause spasms or severe pain.
Hot and cold therapy
If you’ve ever suffered from sore muscles, you’ve probably wondered whether hot or cold therapy is a better treatment option.
Studies suggest both cryotherapy (ice) and thermotherapy (heat) can relieve back pain, especially if they’re accompanied by medication.
Not sure which option is best for you?
Cold packs or ice can decrease swelling and inflammation in the back, especially if the pain is caused by an injury.
Ice is most effective when you use it within 72 hours of an injury or strain.
If you don’t have an ice pack on hand, try a frozen towel or a bag of frozen vegetables—just make sure to wrap the bag in a cloth to avoid ice burn on your skin. Usually, about 20 minutes is enough to reduce inflammation.
Heat packs, heating pads, or hot baths can be helpful for relaxing stiff or tight muscles in the back, because heat stimulates blood flow.
It’s best to hold off on heat therapy until swelling or inflammation from your initial injury has subsided, usually 72 hours or so after the inciting event.
For some people, 10 or 15 minutes of heat is enough to improve symptoms; other times, 20-30 minutes is ideal.
Anytime you’re healing from sickness or an injury, your body needs more rest—and low back pain is no exception.
In general, lack of sleep is associated with increased health risks, from compromising the immune system to increasing blood pressure and migraines.
That said, full-blown bed rest isn’t necessary for most people’s back pain—in fact, it could actually do more harm than good.
Spending too much time in bed can cause your muscles to lose their strength and conditioning, which could worsen symptoms.
To get the most out of your rest, focus on how you sleep when you’re in bed.
If you’re experiencing low back pain, it may be tough to find a comfortable position.
According to the Sleep Foundation, one of the best positions for sleeping with low back pain is on your side with your knees slightly bent.
To prevent low back pain, sleeping on your back with your knees slightly elevated by a pillow can keep your spinal cord aligned and reduce stress on your lower back.
Your mattress can also affect quality of sleep, especially if you have low back pain.
As a general rule, aim for a softer mattress if your waist is narrower than your hips; if your waist and hips are about the same width, you may benefit from a firmer mattress.
Wear proper shoes
Wearing unsupportive shoes can result in poor alignment in your back and hips, which can trigger low back pain.
To both reduce low back pain and prevent it altogether, invest in comfortable, sturdy shoes with ample arch support and cushioning.
Well-fitting shoes are just as important as any shoe’s features—if you’re not able to walk or move correctly, you could unknowingly strain your back.
Not sure what type of shoes to get? Many shoe stores can assist customers with everything from proper fit to orthotic insoles, which have been shown in studies to help with low back pain and function.
Maintaining appropriate posture can play a big role in reducing and preventing low back pain by easing pressure on your lumbar region.
As a goal, try to keep your head centered over your pelvis, and avoid slouching your shoulders forward or craning your chin.
Ergonomics, or your work setup, can also impact your lower back.
Studies suggest sitting for long periods in awkward positions can promote back pain.
You can prevent strain with lumbar support on your chair. Always try to rest your arms evenly on your desk, and keep your eyes level with the top of the screen instead of looking up or down.
It may help to invest in a riser for your laptop or computer monitor.
Lastly, because sitting for most of the day can cause a stiff back or strain in your low back, try to get up every hour or two to stretch and walk. If you need help remembering, set a timer!
The extra effort is worth preventing an episode of low back pain.
Chronic stress can take a major toll on your overall health and well-being, including causing muscle tension in your back and surrounding areas.
Stress can also lead people to make lifestyle decisions that promote low back pain, such as staying in bed or avoiding exercise.
To reduce stress, try talking to a trusted loved one or a therapist.
Practicing mindfulness or meditation can help reduce stress levels, as can deep breathing exercises and journaling.
And while we all have busy schedules and no shortage of demands at work and at home, do your best to carve out time for rest and things you enjoy, whether spending time with friends and family or participating in your favorite hobbies.
Exercise has also been shown to reduce stress and improve mental health, which in turn may help reduce low back pain (along with decreasing your long-term risk of disease).
By reducing inflammation and swelling, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can also improve pain associated with low back.
The most common OTC medications for back pain include acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), and naproxen.
You may find that taking any of these OTC medications in conjunction with other non-pharmaceutical low-back pain remedies significantly improves your symptoms.
Ibuprofen and naproxen are in the same family, so only use one of these at a time, but either can be combined with acetaminophen.
Muscle rubs and patches such as Aspercreme, IcyHot or Salonpas applied over the area of pain can be soothing as well.
Always follow the instructions on the medication label and, if your low back pain isn’t improving at all when you take OTC medication, talk to a healthcare professional.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
If you’re experiencing pain in your low back, a healthcare professional can help you determine the cause, and treatment options that can alleviate symptoms.
While home remedies for low back pain may prove helpful, it’s important to check with your provider before trying something on your own at home.
If you are experiencing any severe pain, pain after a fall or injury, numbness or weakness of your legs or groin area, or any difficulty with bowel movements or urination, you should be seen and evaluated right away.
And while most back pain does improve within a few weeks, consult a healthcare provider for any pain that is not improving after two weeks.
How K Health Can Help
Back pain can be debilitating. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Exercise as a treatment for low back pain. (2004).
Shoe Orthotics for the Treatment of Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. (2017).
Yoga or Stretching Eases Low Back Pain. (2011).