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Managing acute back pain at home


Acute back pain is pain that develops suddenly. This pain usually goes away within a few weeks. Acute back pain is the most common type of back pain.

Staying active

You may want to reduce your activity for the first couple of days after your pain starts. Being less active at first can help calm your symptoms.

A common myth about back pain is that you need to rest and avoid all activity for a long time to heal. In fact, bed rest is NOT recommended. In fact, you should remain active. However, if you have signs of a serious back problem, such as loss of bowel or bladder control, weakness, weight loss, or fever, you should get medical help right away.

Here are some tips for how to handle back pain and activity early on:

  • Stop normal physical activity only for the first few days. This helps calm your symptoms and reduces any swelling (inflammation) in the area of the pain.
  • Apply heat or ice to the painful area. One good method is to use ice for the first 48 to 72 hours, then use heat.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers. These are medicines you can buy without a prescription. Two of them are ibuprofen (such as Advil and Motrin IB) or acetaminophen (such as Tylenol).
  • Sleep in a curled-up, fetal position with a pillow between your legs. If you usually sleep on your back, place a pillow or rolled towel under your knees to relieve pressure on your lower back.

After a couple of days of rest, slowly restart your usual everyday activities. After 2 to 3 weeks, slowly begin to do exercises that will not injure your back. But avoid certain types of exercise, heavy lifting, or twisting your back for the first 6 weeks after your pain began. Exercises to avoid are listed in the paragraphs below.

After 2 to 3 weeks, you can slowly begin to do sports activities again. It's helpful to get advice from your health care provider about safe activities.

Avoid these exercises during recovery, unless your provider, or physical therapist, says it is okay for you to do them:

  • Jogging
  • Contact sports, such as football and wrestling
  • Racquet sports
  • Golf
  • Dancing
  • Weightlifting
  • Leg lifts when lying on your stomach
  • Sit-ups (crunches) with straight legs (keep your knees bent)

Stretching and strengthening exercises are important to do after your pain has gone away. Starting these exercises too soon after your back pain starts can make your pain worse. A physical therapist can help you determine when to begin stretching and strengthening exercises and teach you how to do them.

Preventing your back pain from coming back

To prevent back pain, it is very important to learn to lift and bend properly.

Other things you can do to help prevent back pain are:

  • Avoid standing for long periods of time. If you must stand at work, try resting one foot on a stool, then the other foot. Keep switching off during the day.
  • DO NOT wear high heels.
  • Wear shoes with cushioned soles when you are walking.
  • If you have a desk job, and especially if you use a computer, get a good chair. It should have a straight back with an adjustable seat and back, armrests, and a swivel seat. A standing desk can also be helpful.
  • Rest your feet on a low stool while you are sitting so that your knees are higher than your hips.
  • Place a small pillow or rolled towel behind your lower back while sitting or driving for long periods of time.
  • If you drive long distances, stop and walk around every hour. Bring your seat as far forward as possible to avoid bending while you are driving. DO NOT lift heavy objects right after a car ride.
  • If you are overweight, try to lose weight. Weighing less will put less pressure on your back.

Exercise is important for preventing future back pain. Do abdominal exercises on a regular basis. These will strengthen your core muscles, which support your back. A stronger core will decrease your risk of further back injuries.

A complete exercise program should include aerobic activity, stretching, and strength training. Always follow the instructions of your provider or physical therapist.

You may be advised to begin with light aerobic exercises, such as walking, swimming, or riding a stationary bicycle. These exercises can help improve blood flow to your back, and that will help with healing. These exercises also strengthen the muscles in your abdomen and back.

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Review Date: 4/3/2018

Reviewed By: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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