How to Relieve Lower Back Pain: The Ultimate Guide (+ 10 Proven Prevention Tips)
It may have started as a sudden, sharp twinge when you lifted your child from his car seat. Or maybe your lower back pain is frustratingly familiar — the effect of an underlying medical condition or the recurring, aching aftermath of an old injury.
You’re not alone. 80% of the population will experience back pain in their lives.
But just because it’s common doesn’t mean you have to accept it.
No matter how it began, you want the pain gone and your quality of life back.
How to Relieve Lower Back Pain Fast
Products available at your local drugstore can relieve many lower back pain symptoms quickly.
But beyond mere symptom relief, many people have completely resolved their recurring pain by incorporating simple wellness practices into their daily routine.
This article will discuss the common causes of lower back pain and suggest products, treatments, practices, diet, supplementation, and exercises that can bring relief fast.
Finally, you’ll learn simple, effective strategies to prevent the pain from returning.
Lower Back Anatomy: The Basics
The five lumbar vertebrae at the base of your spine support your upper and lower body, enabling you to flex, extend, and rotate your torso.
Surrounding the lumbar spine is a complex network of muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
The brief video below explains the anatomy and function of the lower back using easy-to-understand language and images.
The video discusses degenerative processes in the spine — including age-related changes, slipped discs, thinning of bones, nerve impingement, and bone spurs — as well as the effects of injury.
Is Your Lower Back Pain Acute or Chronic?
Lower back pain can vary from a dull ache to a sharp burning sensation. Some people experience the onset of pain immediately, while the pain develops gradually in others.
Understanding whether your pain is acute or chronic is important to determine the correct treatment.
Acute pain begins after an injury, such as a sprain or strain, or from illness. It can last from several days to a few months. Acute pain has an identifiable cause and is easier to treat than chronic pain.
Chronic pain can linger after an acute injury. It can result from serious illness or from degenerative factors and can last for months or years.
Because chronic pain often involves symptom clusters rather than one obvious cause, it’s more complicated to treat than acute pain.
What Causes Lower Back Pain?
Two of the most common lower back pain causes are ligament sprains and muscle strains. Both are acute conditions.
The body’s response to trauma is inflammation, or the release of biochemicals into the affected area. The inflammation irritates your nerves, causing pain.
Bad posture and obesity can stress your back, as can prolonged sitting.
Other common chronic causes include:
- Ankylosing spondylitis. Arthritis in the spine, causing pain and stiffness.
- Herniated disc. Occurs when the gel-like discs between vertebrae deteriorate and rupture.
- Osteomyelitis. Infection of the bone.
- Osteoporosis. Thinning and weakening of bones, including the vertebrae.
- Sacroiliitis. Inflammation of one or both of the sacroiliac joints, where the lower spine and pelvis connect.
- Sciatica. Pain along the sciatic nerve, which branches from your lower back and extends down each leg into your feet.
- Scoliosis. Lateral curvature of the spine.
- Stenosis. Occurs when the spinal column narrows, reducing space for the nerves.
The Mayo Clinic advises you to see your doctor if the pain lasts longer than two weeks, is unremitting or severe, radiates down your leg, keeps you from your usual activities, or interferes with sleep.
If you have a fever, bowel or bladder issues, or unexplained weight loss, see your doctor.
Seek emergency care immediately if your pain results from a car accident or a nasty fall.
Lower Back Pain Causes in Females
The following are lower back pain causes exclusive to or more frequently seen in women.
- Dysmenorrhea. Intense menstrual pain in the lower abdomen, lower back, and hips, lasting from 1 to 3 days.
- Premenstrual dysmorphic disorder (PMDD). A hormone-related disorder causing a severe form of premenstrual syndrome.
- Endometriosis. Condition in which the tissue lining the inside of the uterus spreads into other areas of the abdomen.
- Piriformis Syndrome. Occurs due to muscle spasms of the piriformis muscle deep in the buttocks, or with irritation of adjacent structures or the sciatic nerve. Research suggests that women are six times more likely to suffer from piriformis syndrome than men.
- Coccydynia. Pain in the tailbone (coccyx) that occurs because of trauma.
Lower Back Pain Relief Products
Effective products are available at your local drugstore for lower back pain relief at home.
Ice packs and Heating Pads for Heat/Cold Therapy: Defense Against Inflammation and Pain
Ice is best for fresh injuries when swelling or inflammation is present.
- Apply an ice pack during the first 24 to 48 hours after the onset of pain for only 10 minutes at a time.
- Take at least a 10-minute break between ice applications.
- Repeat as needed throughout the day.
48 hours after the onset of acute pain, or for chronic pain, heating pads can improve blood flow and muscle relaxation. Don’t use heat on a recent injury, when inflammation is likely.
To prevent skin damage, never sleep with an ice pack or a heating pad.
Nonprescription Medications: Ease the Aches and Pains
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers ease the symptoms of lower back pain. Because of their anti-inflammatory properties, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often the best choice for back pain. Another option for pain relief is acetaminophen.
1. Ibuprofen. Advil and Motrin are two name brands containing ibuprofen. An NSAID, ibuprofen eases pain and has an anti-inflammatory effect that lasts in your system for 4 to 6 hours.
2. Naproxen. Aleve is the brand name of the generic drug, naproxen. Also an NSAID, Naproxen works longer in the body than ibuprofen — between 8 to 12 hours.
3. Acetaminophen. Tylenol is the name brand for the generic drug acetaminophen. While acetaminophen effectively relieves pain, it doesn’t treat inflammation.
Topical Creams and Pain Patches: Relief on the Spot
Medicated creams or patches containing camphor, menthol, or lidocaine soothe stiffness and soreness by cooling, heating, or numbing the painful area.
If medical marijuana is legal where you live, you might be interested in trying topical pain patches containing a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC. Back pain sufferers report relief of moderate symptoms with no intoxicating effects from the THC.
In-Home Pain Relief Devices: More Ways to Feel Better
- TENS Units. Effective for easing muscular pain, a TENS unit sends electrical impulses through electrodes that attach to the lower back with reusable sticky pads.
These devices are available for purchase online or in medical supply stores for between $30 to $100.
- Massagers. Careful use of massage devices can soothe muscle pain and stiffness. A light-pressure setting is usually best, applied to the affected area for only 15 minutes at a time.
- Back Support Braces. Back support braces limit range of motion and stabilize the lower back to promote healing. Many back pain sufferers report feeling more secure during daily activities while wearing a brace.
- Lumbar Cushions. Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, lumbar cushions provide support and ease lower back pain while sitting.
Lower Back Treatment at Home
Lower back treatment at home is more than the use of OTC medications and pain relief products.
Reinforce the healing process by eating a diet of nutrient-packed anti-inflammatory foods, taking health-enhancing supplements, and supporting your mental wellbeing.
Holistic pain management enhances traditional medical care, ensuring that your lower back pain treatment is as effective as possible.
Eat Your Way to Health: Superfoods that Fight Inflammation and Promote Wellness
Fruits and Vegetables: Variety and color are the key.
Greens like broccoli, spinach, cabbage and kale fight inflammation, as do colorful fruits like blackberries, raspberries, and cherries.
Fish: The best protein for reducing inflammation.
Tuna and salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, proven to fight inflammation.
Nuts: Have a handful a day to keep inflammation away.
Nuts contain a healthy fat that reduces inflammation. Limit yourself to a handful per day because of the fat and calorie content.
Note: Olive oil and avocados are also excellent anti-inflammatory food sources.
Whole grains and beans: Packed with healthy fiber.
Beans fight inflammation, along with whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and other fiber-filled unrefined grains.
Garlic: A flavorful anti-inflammatory.
Garlic reduces inflammation and helps curb cartilage damage from arthritis.
Beyond Healthy Eating: Powerful Supplements that Relieve Inflammation and Boost Immunity
- Turmeric/curcumin. Research shows that turmeric reduces inflammation and can improve osteoarthritis symptoms.
- Magnesium. Researchers have linked low magnesium intake to chronic inflammation.
- Vitamin D. Critical to immune health, vitamin D possesses strong anti-inflammatory effects.
- Vitamin C. Like vitamin D, vitamin C plays an essential role in immunity and inflammation.
- Green Tea Extract. Studies suggest that many of the anti-inflammatory properties of green tea come from EGCG — a powerful antioxidant.
Boost Your Mood: Reduce Pain and Stress with Mindfulness, Meditation, and Cognitive Therapy
Pain takes its toll on your mind as well as your body.
Long-term emotional stress can cause generalized inflammation, exacerbating your pain and impeding the healing process.
Avoid isolation, take part in activities you enjoy, and do things that encourage the release of endorphins (the body’s “feel-good” hormone) to counteract stress.
Lift your spirits:
- Listen to your favorite music or podcast.
- Engage in a creative hobby.
- Watch an uplifting or funny TV show or movie.
- Enjoy some delicious dark chocolate.
- Try aromatherapy, which uses scents to promote relaxation.
- Venture outdoors, taking in the sights and sounds around you.
- Spend time connecting with friends and family.
Practice mindful pain management. Using this technique, you’ll concentrate on controlled, conscious breathing. You’ll focus your thoughts on the present moment, trying not to let your mind wander.
With practice, you can expect to feel more relaxed and may even reduce your symptoms.
Try following along with a guided meditation podcast or YouTube video to get started.
Cognitive behavioral therapy. If you’re having trouble getting to a positive mental place on your own, consider seeing a cognitive therapist.
Cognitive therapy teaches you to change the way you think about your pain, to better cope with it.
Lower Back Exercises at Home
As tempting as it may be to crawl into your comfy bed when the pain hits, experts agree that it’s best to keep moving. Fortunately, you can do the lower back pain exercises you need in the convenience of your home.
Lower Back Pain Exercises: Simple Moves to Stretch and Strengthen
Rehabilitation specialists assert that stretching is the most effective exercise for lower back pain relief, especially if a strengthening component is included.
If an exercise causes pain to radiate down your leg, discontinue the movement immediately.
The short video below shows a series of back pain exercises you can do at home, focusing on the lower back, hip flexors, and hamstrings for thorough relief.
Modifications are demonstrated for each stretch, so you’ll find a variation that’s right for your body.
The exercises include:
- Lying on your back, raise your knees to your chest, rock gently side to side
- Standing hip flexor/hamstring stretch
- “Sloppy” push ups (or sphinx pose, for those familiar with yoga)
- Cat/camel stretch
- Child’s pose
- Lying on your back with your legs placed over a chair or against a wall
How to Relieve Lower Back Pain While Sleeping
Choose the Right Mattress and Pillow to Sleep Comfortably and Feel Refreshed
Studies suggest that people with lower back pain do better with a medium-to-firm mattress.
The best mattress for back pain enables your spine to maintain its natural position, letting your body sink into the mattress where needed while still providing support to your lower back and neck.
Side sleepers will be most comfortable with a firm pillow. Back sleepers can avoid morning neck stiffness by selecting a pillow that’s neither too firm nor too high.
The 5 Best Sleeping Positions for Lower Back Pain
This brief video shows the best sleeping positions and pillow placement for restorative sleep despite back pain.
You’ll find something that works for you, whether you prefer sleeping on your side, back, or even your stomach.
How to Relieve Herniated Disc Pain in Your Lower Back
You can ease mild herniated disc pain temporarily with heat/cold therapy, OTC medications, and other home treatment options discussed above.
But because these measures provide only temporary relief from pain, see your doctor before making them a part of your daily pain relief plan.
Reduce pressure on your herniated disc:
- Avoid repetitive bending or reaching.
- Wear low-heeled shoes.
- Practice good posture while standing or sitting.
- Don’t stand or sit for long periods without shifting positions.
- Sleep on your side or your back — not on your stomach.
- Lift heavy objects carefully, keeping your back straight and leveraging the strength of your legs.
Most people experience relief of herniated disc pain with conservative treatment, seeing significant improvement within 4 to 6 weeks.
Prescription Medications and Other Treatments: The Next Line of Defense Against Lower Back Pain
- Muscle Relaxants. If OTC medications can’t relieve your pain, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant, such as Flexeril. These medications ease muscle spasms that can cause severe pain and limit your mobility.
- Antidepressants. Certain antidepressants — particularly the name brand medications Effexor, Cymbalta, Savella, and Pristiq — have been proven effective against chronic back pain. Doctors may prescribe these medications for pain even in the absence of depression.
- Narcotics/Opioids. Opioids, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, may relieve severe pain for brief periods under close medical supervision. Doctors are increasingly reluctant to prescribe opioids, however, because of the potential for addiction.
- Cortisone Injections. If oral prescription medications don’t relieve your pain, your doctor may recommend injecting a corticosteroid around the spinal nerves.
- Surgery. While surgery isn’t required in most cases, your doctor may consider it if conservative treatments don’t improve your symptoms after 6 to 8 weeks.
How to Relieve Lower Back Pain During Pregnancy
The body releases hormones as it prepares for childbirth, softening ligaments and joints and making your lower and mid-back susceptible to pain.
Although it can start earlier, most women experience back pain between the fifth and seventh months of pregnancy.
To stabilize your back and relieve pain:
- Select a chair with good back support. Try placing a small cushion behind your lower back.
- Wear low-heeled shoes, but not flats. The bones and ligaments of the feet can spread during pregnancy, so arch support is essential.
- Consider wearing a maternity support belt.
- Body pillows can support your hips and lower back during sleep.
- To relax your mind and strengthen your body for childbirth, try one of the many free YouTube videos on prenatal yoga.
- Head to the pool. Swimming can maintain your cardiovascular fitness while relieving pressure on your joints and spine.
- Acetaminophen is safe for pain relief, but avoid ibuprofen and other NSAIDs unless your doctor gives the OK.
Ergonomics: Could Your Job Be Causing Your Back Pain?
Most people know that a physically active job requiring repetitive lifting or twisting can cause or exacerbate lower back pain.
You might think you’d be safer from injury sitting at a desk all day, but the effects of sedentary work are like those of manual labor. In both cases, excess pressure is placed on the discs and soft tissue structures of the back.
To avoid injury during physically-demanding tasks, pay attention to proper body mechanics. Lift with your knees and hips, not with your back. Use a dolly or cart to move heavy objects.
In this short video, a Mayo Clinic ergonomist shows nine ways to create a back-friendly office workspace.
Health Professionals: How They Can Help Relieve Your Lower Back Pain
- Chiropractic. Chiropractors perform spinal adjustments to improve alignment and increase joint mobility.
- Physical therapy. Physical therapists plan and oversee treatment for injury rehabilitation and preventive care.
- Massage therapy. Massage therapists improve circulation and muscle relaxation for a better range of motion.
- Acupuncture. Acupuncturists target pain points using fine needles to stimulate the nervous system, releasing serotonin and endorphins for holistic pain relief.
10 Prevention Tips: How to Keep Your Lower Back Pain from Returning
- Wear supportive, low-heeled shoes.
- Lighten your purse or any bag you carry regularly. If you can’t lighten the load, try using a backpack or wheeled briefcase instead.
- Eat a clean diet of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains.
- Add anti-inflammatory supplements to boost the benefits.
- Quit smoking to slow the degenerative spinal changes of aging.
- Mind your posture throughout the day — don’t slouch.
- Practice meditation and deep breathing to manage stress.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Pay attention to ergonomics to avoid discomfort and injury.
- Exercise regularly. Include cardio, yoga or stretching, and resistance training. Strong core muscles are essential to stabilize your back against future injury and pain. Your movement, power, and balance emanate from your core.
Below, two physical therapists lead you through an effective core-strengthening program for long-term back health. Modifications are discussed to make the exercises safe for anyone.
1. Hook-line rotation (back flat on the floor, knees together, hips rotate side to side).
2. With your back flat on the floor, bend both your knees to your chest.
3. Spinal extension (with your belly to the floor, push the upper body up with your arms).
4. With your back flat, lift your knees to your chest (hands under the waist area, lift your legs without arching your back).
5. Bicycles (with your back in a neutral position on the floor, cycle your legs).
6. Superman (with your belly to the floor, raise both your arms and legs by arching your back — or raise only one arm and one leg at a time from the floor).
7. Quadruped (from your hands and knees, raise one arm and one leg while maintaining a neutral spine).
Freedom from Lower Back Pain
Pain steals your quality of life. Now you know how to take it back.
You’ve learned how to relieve lower back pain. Use the products you’ve read about and the techniques you’ve learned to rid yourself of the pain you’re in.
But don’t stop there. Make the prevention tips part of your daily self-care routine to banish back pain for good and experience optimum health.
The vibrant life you deserve can be yours for the taking.