Lower back pain_A physician is looking at an x-ray of a spine

4 steps to relieve lower back pain

Stretches and exercises may offer lower back pain relief, but you need to know what caused it in the first place to prevent it happening again
September 4, 2019

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people visit their primary care provider. “When you have lower back pain, the first thing you should do is determine if it is a chronic or acute issue,” said Matt Hoffman, DNP, APRN, FNP-C, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing. “Chronic and acute lower back pain can require very different care that may overlap. Chronic pain often requires a more intensive, consistent treatment with the help of a health care provider, whereas acute pain will often resolve with time, rest and minimal intervention.” 

Step one: Determine the cause of your back pain

Many instances of lower back pain are fleeting and are therefore considered acute. According to Hoffman, acute pain can last anywhere from a few days to a few months. “A good way to figure out if you have acute back pain is to ask yourself if a specific event caused your pain,” Hoffman said. “Common causes for acute pain include falls, aggressive workouts and lifting heavy objects. Additionally, non-traumatic causes like sleeping wrong, increased weight and poor posture can cause acute pain as well.”

“When you first notice your acute lower back pain, rest it and take an over-the-counter pain reliever,” Hoffman said. “Stay off your feet for the first few days, and if the pain persists after three days, call your provider.”

A good guideline to determine if your pain is considered chronic is to ask yourself if you have felt consistent pain in the area for over six months. “Six months is usually the point where acute pain turns into chronic pain,” Hoffman said. “If your pain has not gone away in six months, check in again with your health care provider.” They can help you identify an intervention and treatment that works for you and your specific pain.

Step two: Contact your health care provider

Regardless of whether your lower back pain is acute or chronic, your health care provider should be aware of what is happening. “If your pain has not improved after three days, contact your health care provider,” Hoffman said. “Most acute lower back pain will heal itself with minimal intervention, but your provider can suggest activities you can do to encourage it to heal.”

If you have chronic lower back pain, your health care provider can suggest a pain management plan customized to your lifestyle and pain. “Your pain management plan should factor in your professional and personal lifestyles as well as any co-morbid illnesses and other disabilities,” Hoffman said. “Your provider will consider any history of mental illness, substance abuse and your weight among other things. Each of those things can influence how your chronic pain is managed.”

Step three: Determine an intervention with your provider that works for you and your pain

Again, contact your health care provider if your pain has not improved after three days, then again if your pain persists beyond six months. Finding a way to manage your pain may take time. You and your provider may try different things before settling on something that actually brings you relief.

In addition, Hoffman states that maintaining a healthy weight prevents many instances of acute lower back pain and also as helps alleviate chronic lower back pain. “If you are carrying a lot of weight in your abdomen, it can cause a curvature in your back,” he said. “Weight loss can help with reoccurring back pain, but it can be difficult to find the right type of exercise that does not worsen your pain.”

Step four: Care for your mental health

Back pain can be very isolating and debilitating. “Many people do not consider that back pain, whether lower or upper back, impacts every part of your body. It can make moving your arms, legs or hips painful,” Hoffman said. “People, especially those with chronic back pain, suffer on a physical and emotional level.”

It is common for people with chronic back pain to take time off work or decline social activities due to the pain. If your back pain is beginning to severely impact your day-to-day activities on a regular basis, then work with your health care provider to establish a treatment that works for you. Sometimes, you may need to adjust your treatment plan.

“As difficult as it is to stay active with chronic pain, physical activity can help, especially if you carry excess weight,” Hoffman said. “The trick is to find the right type of activity that does not exacerbate your pain.” He recommends low impact activities like cycling or water aerobics. He also mentions activities like tai chi and yoga are excellent for stretching and strengthening your back muscles.

A general guideline for back pain

“The good thing is most acute back pain will resolve on its own, but if you have more chronic or severe back pain then it may be worth visiting your provider,” Hoffman said. “If you notice muscle weakness or radiating types of pain around your back, then absolutely seek medical care.”

— Mary Leigh Meyer

You may also like
National Depression Screening Day shines light on mental health treatment
A man sitting on a bus hunched over to represent Chronic pain
Chronic pain: The mental and physical aspects of coping
A doctor speaking to her patient
Top reasons to visit your primary care provider
A few vials full of blood
The do’s and don’ts of fasting before routine bloodwork