Lower back pain is one of the most common reasons people visit a doctor or take time off work. The pain can start after an accident, such as lifting a heavy object, or it may develop as we age. Even a strenuous workout after a short break from exercise may cause pain in your lower back.
Generally, lower back pain falls into two categories:
Acute – Acute back pain lasts a few weeks or less and often resolves on its own without residual loss of function.
Chronic – If the lower back pain continues for 12 weeks or more, it becomes chronic.
Fortunately, whether you have acute or chronic lower back pain, there are ways to help combat it. Read on to learn how to get rid of lower back pain using science-backed treatments or home remedies.
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If you want to alleviate lower back pain with minimal effort, pay attention to your hip and spine muscles and joints. Prevent stress and fatigue on the spine by monitoring your posture and adjusting your neck, shoulder, and back alignment.
Poor, unsupported posture can cause several issues in the back and lead to an increase in pain.¹ You can also prevent stress to the joints and hips by avoiding sitting for prolonged periods since it can increase pressure on your spinal disks. Try using a standing desk at work or take short-distance walks every hour to relieve the load on your disks.
Another way to avoid fatigue that leads to lower back pain is to rotate activities so that the joints and muscles have a break.² For instance, consider switching to a seated position if you’ve been standing for a long period. These small lifestyle changes help prevent stress, strain, and fatigue on the same sets of joints and muscles.
Exercise may seem like a counterintuitive measure when your lower back is hurting. However, it can be beneficial, provided you choose the right kinds of movement.³ For example, people with bulging disks may find exercises such as sit-ups, toe touches, and leg lifts worsen their pain. Those with spinal arthritis may find bending backward or even standing up uncomfortable.
Exercise has consistently been shown to be beneficial in helping lower back pain, particularly for those living with chronic pain.⁴ However, the right types of exercises for your lower back pain will depend on several factors, including:
How long you have had lower back pain
Your fitness levels
Any diagnosed spinal conditions
Therapeutic exercises are specific movements chosen to relieve back pain. By correcting poor movement patterns or strengthening weaker muscles, they help restore any deficits which might be causing symptoms.
For example, many physiotherapists will prescribe McKenzie exercises for effectively rehabilitating acute lower back pain.⁵ These exercises are founded on the philosophy that certain directions of movement can help position the spine so that pain can be improved.
However, even general physical activity, such as walking, can help improve lower back pain. If you are experiencing chronic lower back pain, you may derive as much benefit from a simple walking program as from therapeutic exercise.⁶
Heat or cold therapy can be another effective method to relieve your lower back pain. This remedy is inexpensive, safe, and easy to implement. These are proven treatments that can help alleviate lower back pain quickly.⁷
The kind of hot or cold application you choose depends on the type of pain you are experiencing. Acute back pain may benefit from a combination of cold followed by heat, while chronic pain may need continuous application of mild heat.
If you wish to switch between heat and cold, use heat for 10–15 minutes and ice after 2–3 hours for 10–15 minutes.
Below are some tips on how to get rid of lower back pain with heat or cold therapy.
Apply heat for 10–15 minutes at a time
Use moist heat such as hot packs, baths, or showers, as these tend to work better than dry heat.
All-day heat wrap
These portable heating wraps are discreet and can be worn all day. You can find them in pharmacies.
Electric heating pad
If you use an electric heating pad, make sure you don't fall asleep while on it. Only use heating pads set on low or medium heat and never on high. You should follow these measures to prevent burns.
Moist the towel with cold water and squeeze it thoroughly. Fold the towel, put it into a plastic bag, and freeze for 15 minutes. Remove your frozen towel from the bag and place it on your lower back.
Put 1lb of ice into a plastic bag and add water to barely cover it. Press the air out of the bag and seal it. Use a wet towel to wrap the bag and place it on the affected area.
A paper cup filled with ice
Fill a paper cup two-thirds with water and freeze until it turns to solid ice. Peel back a portion of the paper to expose the ice and gently rub it over your lower back for 3–5 minutes.
A restful night's sleep helps you feel less pain in your lower back during the day. When you have a good night’s sleep, you feel rejuvenated, refreshed, and less stressed. Unfortunately, you may not sleep well if your lower back hurts at night, which might be linked with your sleep posture. A poor sleeping position can cause lower back pain if the spine is not in a neutral pose.
You can try the following three tips to sleep better.⁸
Change your sleeping position
Ensuring pressure is distributed equally along the spine is one way to relieve lower back pain. You can sleep on your back to keep your bodyweight spread evenly or place a pillow under your knees to maintain a comfortable curvature of your lower back. If you are a side sleeper, try to draw your knees slightly towards the chest and often alternate the side you sleep on.
Avoid sleeping on the stomach as it can place excess strain on the spine. But if you cannot sleep in another position, consider placing a pillow below your abdomen to ease some tension in the neck and back.
Due to the unique characteristics of each person, there is no perfect sleeping posture that will suit everyone. You need to find the one that is best for you.
Upgrade your mattress
Your mattress can impact your spinal health enormously. On average, people will sleep on the same mattress for 9.5 years.⁹ Over time, mattresses lose springiness or sag, which can lead to poor spinal alignment.
Another important consideration when choosing a mattress is firmness. Though everybody has different preferences, research suggests that sleeping on a medium-firm mattress is the most proven way to help ease and prevent lower back pain.¹⁰ When purchasing a mattress, try it before you buy.
Check your pillow
Ensuring that your spine maintains a natural curve is crucial for relieving tension at night, and a pillow plays a part in that process. An important characteristic is the height of the pillow, typically described as low or high profile. To maintain spinal alignment, those who are predominately back sleepers should opt for low-profile pillows, whereas side-sleepers should consider a high-profile alternative.
The material inside the pillow can help improve sleep quality. For example, memory foam pillows tend to provide more support by contouring around the user's head, while down pillows are softer and can feel more pleasant. Try a pillow before buying.
Despite the importance of high-quality sleep, too much bed rest can be counter-productive. Some bed rest can offer initial relief from lower back pain. However, staying in bed for too long can worsen pain and even delay recovery.¹¹ Extended bed rest may weaken muscles in the body necessary for supporting the back.
Diet can also contribute to the risk of developing low back pain. You should consider a low-inflammatory diet given the connection between inflammation and back pain.¹²
An example of a pro-inflammatory diet includes consuming high amounts of refined grains, processed sugars, and red meat with minimal fruit and vegetable intake.¹³
These inflammatory foods also tend to be high in calories which can lead to weight gain and obesity. Excess weight is strongly related to developing low back pain.¹⁴
Other foods to avoid or reduce include:
Oils such as sunflower, soya, corn, and canola
Processed carbohydrates such as certain breakfast cereals, pastries, ice cream, baked goods, white bread, white pasta, snack foods
Consume anti-inflammatory foods regularly to increase anti-inflammatory agents in your blood. These play a role in eliminating inflammatory reactions in your body, which helps relieve back pain.
These anti-inflammatory agents are available in the following foods:¹⁵
Seafood such as sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and shellfish
Fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries
Herbs and spices such as turmeric, garlic, cloves, oregano, ginger, rosemary, and cinnamon
Dark leafy vegetables
Nuts and seeds
Olives and olive oil
Note that no single food may reduce inflammation. The bottom line is to have a diet combining several fresh, nutritious foods.
You should also pay attention to ingredients when buying pre-packaged foods labeled 'healthy' or 'whole.' They may contain added fats or sugars, which may reduce the food's anti-inflammatory properties.
Did you know that your footwear could be the cause of your back pain? Improper shoes can encourage poor movement patterns that increase stress and strain on the back.
Researchers found that unstable shoes worsened lower back pain compared to more standard footwear.¹⁶ Always trial a shoe before purchasing to find one that is comfortable for you and your back.
Foot orthotics or shoe inserts also help relieve lower back pain – especially in people with known conditions.¹⁷ Foot or ankle problems, such as asymmetry between each foot or poor arches, can affect the body’s movement patterns and alignment. Over time, these small imbalances can lead to accumulated stress and strain in the lower back, which can ultimately cause pain.
Foot orthotics are devices placed in the shoe to correct an irregular or abnormal gait by improving the alignment of the ankle. Although they are common prescriptions to reduce heel and foot pain, these professionally made devices can also help reduce lower back pain.
Meditation involves observing your thoughts and feelings from afar to assess your current mindset. It encourages moving your mind away from pain and onto something more soothing.
Practicing meditation helps reduce stress and anxiety, which are closely related to lower back pain.¹⁸ Several methods exist, including guided online meditation to help divert attention away from pain.
Another example is yoga meditation, which incorporates physical movements, such as deep breathing or certain relaxing postures. Regardless of the method you choose, all you need is consistency and commitment to the practice.
Meditation can help relieve lower back pain by changing your brain activity.¹⁹ Instead of being trapped in the unpleasantness of pain, meditation encourages a more objective outlook. Having a more outside–in perspective may allow you to accept the pain instead of being overwhelmed by it. Ultimately, coping with pain allows for greater tolerance and better long-term outcomes.
Lower back pain usually gets better on its own, and the remedies and techniques mentioned above can help speed up recovery. However, if your lower back pain becomes severe, persists over a long period, or leads to more concerning symptoms, it is recommended that you see a doctor.
Seek medical help if you have lower back pain alongside the following symptoms:
Very severe pain
Difficulty walking or moving your legs
Loss of bladder or bowel function
Loss of sensation in your legs
Your doctor can help identify potential causes of your lower back pain and suggest appropriate treatments.
Lower back pain should not prevent you from living your life, and the techniques outlined above can help relieve the pain and bring back your comfort.
However, if the pain becomes severe, seems not to improve, or develops into more concerning symptoms, seek medical help.
Work-related musculoskeletal disorders & ergonomics | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Foods that fight inflammation | Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School
Quick start guide to an anti-inflammation diet | Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School
Mindfulness meditation for chronic low back pain | US Department of Veterans Affairs