I’m a long-time sufferer of chronic and acute back pain. The first time I experienced pain was as a 20-year-old college student – I was lifting weights, and an inconsiderate gym-goer bumped into me as I was lifting a barbell over my head. I had to move awkwardly to maintain my balance, and just like that, my back tweaked.
For a long time my pain was relatively low – it was there, but it was never serious enough to seek treatment. Plus I was in good shape, which made the pain more manageable.
But then I graduated college and life changed. The combination of a high-stress job, bad mattress, and decreased activity combined to form the perfect storm of acute back pain. One morning I woke up with a back spasm so severe that one hip was tilted at an angle about three inches higher than the other one. I couldn’t walk without wanting to cry, and I was terrified I had done something to myself that couldn’t be fixed.
Desperate, I called my brother (a doctor) to see if he knew what I should do, but he was unreachable. I didn’t have a primary care physician, and despite calling every practice in the area, no one would see me immediately. I felt silly considering the emergency room, but I was at a breaking point. I finally called a chiropractor in tears, begging him to adjust me even though it was his day off. He agreed.
I’d never been to a chiropractor before and my visit was a disaster. I didn’t realize that after an adjustment the pain might not immediately change, and I left his office feeling more crippled than when I’d walked in. My husband was working at a bank at the time, and I drove through the bank’s drive-thru service area bawling because I was in too much pain to walk inside and I didn’t know what to do.
Thus began my eight-year journey with chronic and acute back pain. I went home that day determined to do whatever I could to relieve the pain. I took over-the-counter pain killers, stretched for hours, used a foam roller, and ran through a few exercises I found online. The severe spasm did ease up, and the next day, my hips were no longer crooked. I had returned to a manageable level of pain.
Since then, I’ve continued to manage my pain. Most days are good – I wake up knowing I’ll be able to work and play with low to no pain. But a few times a year, I start to experience steadily increasing chronic pain – sometimes it’s because of hormones, sometimes it’s due to a decreased activity level, and sometimes it’s because of sleep patterns. Regardless, if I don’t head it off before it peaks, I end up in bed, mostly unable to move.
Home Solutions for Back Pain Relief
The good news is, I have learned how to head off a spasm. The combination of my fitness background, discussions with various doctors, and years of experience have helped me identify a number of home solutions that really do help alleviate pain.
Just note, if you’re experiencing unexplained back pain or acute pain (sharp pain that shows up suddenly), please see your doctor to talk about causes and treatments before undertaking your own home pain solutions.
1. Regular Exercise
When you’re in pain, exercise might be the last thing on your mind, but it’s exactly when you should make an effort to fit it in. According to a review study published in “The Spine Journal” in 2004, medical literature on exercise and back pain indicates that exercise is unlikely to increase spinal pain or conditions. In fact, it’s effective at reducing pain post-exercise by roughly 10% to 50%, and it’s likely to increase strength and flexibility so as to reduce the likelihood of continued or future pain.
It’s also important to incorporate core- and back-strengthening exercises into your routine. For instance, depending on your baseline level of strength and pain, you could incorporate the following:
- Planks: Maintain a straight-body position while balancing on your forearms and toes, so your elbows are directly under your shoulders. Essentially, you’re holding your body completely steady by engaging the muscles of your abs, hips, and back. If it’s too difficult to maintain the position on your toes, you can drop your knees to the ground.
- Alternating Leg Lifts: Lie on your back and extend your arms down by your hips, placing your hands under your hips for added support. Engage your abs and lower back, with the goal of keeping your lower back affixed to the ground. From this position, engage your core and lift one leg off the ground, extending it toward the ceiling, then lower it back toward the ground and repeat with the opposite leg. If needed, you can bend your knees and perform the same alternating movement, but draw your knee toward your chest rather than extend your toes toward the ceiling.
- Supermans: Lie on your stomach on the ground, your legs extended and your arms extended out from your shoulders, but with your elbows bent so your hands are reaching above your head, as if you were “flying.” In one movement, lift your feet, arms, and shoulders a few inches from the ground as you contract the muscles of your lower back. Lower yourself back toward the ground and repeat. If this proves to be too difficult, start by lifting your right arm and left leg simultaneously, then switch to lifting your left arm and right leg.
- Wall Squats: Lean your back against a wall, positioning your feet flat on the ground so your heels are a foot or two away from the wall. Tighten your core and bend your knees, sinking yourself into a lower position on the wall while keeping your torso pressed against the wall. Lower yourself only as far as is comfortable, then hold the position as long as you can while maintaining good form.
Just make sure the exercises you perform don’t increase your pain level – if they do, it’s time to choose a different exercise or take a break.
2. Regular Stretching
Poor flexibility is a major contributor to back pain – particularly poor flexibility in your hamstrings, hip flexors, and lower back. This is due in large part to office jobs and periods of extended sitting.
Think about it: If you’re sitting all day at a desk, your muscles become accustomed to remaining in a stagnant, shortened position. If you’re not counteracting the shortening of the muscles with lengthening exercises that take the muscles through their full range of motion, your body can be pulled out of alignment, ultimately leading to muscle imbalances and pain.
If you’re suffering from chronic pain, carve out a minimum of five minutes to stretch each day, aiming for three separate five-minute stretching bouts. Talk to your doctor, physical therapist, or chiropractor about which stretches are most appropriate for you, as these might change based on your pain level and your initial flexibility.
3. Foam Rolling
Foam rolling is an excellent form of self-massage that helps loosen up tight muscles and iron out adhesions – painful knots that develop when muscle fibers “stick” to muscle fascia, or the sheath of tissue that surrounds muscle fibers. When adhesions develop, blood and nutrient flow to the muscle fibers decreases, further contributing to pain and possible injury.
Foam rolling helps you target muscle adhesions, working out tight spots to increase blood flow to the area and prevent further damage. The trick is to choose a roller made of high density EVA foam so the roller maintains its shape. You can pick up a High Density Foam Roller from Amazon for less than $20. Then, make sure you roll slowly over the roller to target affected areas, avoiding direct pressure on your joints. For instance, if you’re rolling your hamstrings, keep the foam roller on the soft tissue of back of your leg, avoiding the hip and knee. If you find a spot that’s particularly painful, stop rolling and try to relax while maintaining steady pressure on the affected area, gradually adding small rolling movements to the steady pressure to help release the knot.
I’ve found that rolling my upper thighs, just below my pelvic girdle, helps release adhesions in my hip flexors. This is an often overlooked area for foam rolling, and it can significantly improve back pain when combined with other pain-relieving methods.
4. Use of Massage Blocks or Balls
The one downside to foam rollers is that they’re not always effective at targeting deep tissue in the lower back surrounding the spine. In fact, foam rollers aren’t typically used for lower back adhesions because rolling on the lower back can place undue pressure on the spine. Generally speaking, a foam roller should be used only for mid- to upper-back rolling.
This is where Massage Blocks and massage balls come in. Massage Blocks are a name-brand item that have been a lifesaver for me – I absolutely swear by the adhesion-releasing ability of the Knot Finder Kit. The concept is simple: Knot Finders are rounded, pyramid-shaped pieces of synthetic rubber that you can use to “dig in” to deep muscle tissue. They come in three different sizes so you can find the right size for the muscles you’re targeting. For instance, the largest Knot Finder is great for targeting muscles in your lower back, while the smaller Knot Finders are effective at working out tightness around the shoulder blades.
I’ve found I prefer Massage Blocks over massage balls (offered through many companies, such as Trigger Point Therapy), simply because they’re flat on one side, so you can set it on the ground or push it against the back of a chair to really dig into a muscle without having it roll around.
That said, massage balls (and even baseballs), can do the trick. Just like the Massage Blocks, they enable you to dig into a knot more effectively than you can with a foam roller.
Just remember, it’s important to avoid using massage balls, blocks, or baseballs on anything other than soft tissue. Avoid placing pressure directly on a bone or joint, particularly on your spine. Instead, target the muscles just to either side of your spine.
Also, keep in mind that most massage balls and blocks are made out of material with some “give” to it – baseballs are much firmer, which if used too aggressively, could lead to bruising or tissue damage. Ease your way into this type of “trigger point therapy,” and start with balls or blocks that have a little give to them, such as a tennis ball.
5. Acupressure Mats
I typically save my acupressure mat for when I’m experiencing acute back pain, but that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful for chronic pain too. These padded mats, produced by companies like Bed of Nails and Halsa Mat, are about 17 inches wide by 29 inches long and are covered with almost 9,000 needle-sharp points designed to activate pressure points on your back, stimulating blood flow to the area. “Needle sharp points” may sound scary, but I promise, it’s not as crazy as it sounds – the points simply create well-dispersed pressure across the back without piercing the skin.
The therapy may feel uncomfortable at first, but if you keep at it, you’ll grow accustomed to the pressure and you’ll appreciate its pain-reducing benefits. A mat for home use typically costs between $30 and $80, depending on brand and size.
What I’ve found is that my acupressure mat is a great short-term alternative to taking over-the-counter pain relievers. Because acupressure mats stimulate blood flow to the back, more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the area, encouraging proper cellular function that can enhance healing. Plus, this type of pressure helps stimulate the release of endorphins (“feel good” hormones) that can help reduce pain and induce relaxation.
Practically speaking, it’s this last factor that helps me the most. Since much of my chronic and acute back pain is attributable to severe muscle spasms, the very ability to relax for short periods of time with reduced pain is a lifesaver. The results only last as long as I’m lying on the mat, but while I’m using it, my back essentially goes numb – and aside from the pressure of the points, I don’t feel a bit of pain. This is particularly helpful during acute back spasms, when lying on the mat is the only way I can fall asleep.
If you’re a chronic pain sufferer who hates taking medicine for your pain (like me), lying on an acupressure mat might give you some much-needed relief without a dose of aspirin. Just know that it takes a little while to get used to lying on the mat – those spikes are sharp. Ease your way into it by wearing a t-shirt the first few times out, and gradually increase your time spent on the mat.
6. Heat and Cold Therapy
There’s a reason doctors suggest using ice and heat to prevent and eliminate pain. However, it’s important to know when to use each method.
Ice therapy is effective for numbing pain and reducing blood flow to an injured area. This helps prevent inflammation and swelling, and is most effective when used within 24 to 48 hours of injury or irritation. In other words, if I feel pain start to come on, that’s when I start applying ice.
Heat therapy does the opposite: it stimulates blood flow to an area, increasing the delivery of oxygen, nutrients, and the buffering away of waste products. Ultimately, heat therapy can help an injured body part heal, but if you apply heat at the onset of symptoms, it can actually contribute to inflammation and swelling. Heat therapy is best applied 48 hours after an injury or irritation occurs.
After the 48-hour cold vs. heat designation period, you can apply cold or heat as you see fit. In other words, if you’re dealing with a consistent level of pain that’s not increasing or decreasing (and has been present for more than 48-hours), simply use heat or cold therapy based on your personal preferences.
7. The Right Bedding
I’m a stomach sleeper. I know this wreaks havoc on my back, but no matter how hard I try to change to a side or back sleeper, I simply can’t do it. Things got particularly bad a few years ago when I was sleeping on an old, uncomfortable mattress that was much too hard. I woke up every morning feeling like I was well into my 70s – barely able to move without pain until the stiffness finally eased up. But even so, sitting down and standing up were painful.
Then I discovered a miracle pillow – a memory foam body pillow I picked up on a whim from the local discount grocery story. It changed my life. I discovered I could “stomach sleep” on the pillow in a way that actually forced me to be a side sleeper. Plus, the memory foam helped my body maintain a more neutral spine position during sleep, so I didn’t wake up stiff and in constant pain. And because I wasn’t in pain while sleeping, I slept much better, and was ultimately happier and more productive.
Unfortunately, my pillow didn’t make it through our last cross-country move, and I’ve spent the last year and a half trying to make the best of another body pillow that simply doesn’t measure up. Again, I’ve been sleeping on a less-than-ideal mattress, and my morning stiffness is starting to return.
I’m happy to report I’ll be returning to memory foam heaven shortly, as my husband and I are splurging on a high-quality Casper mattress. The right bedding may not always be cheap (the mattress we’re purchasing is $950 and doesn’t include a box spring or frame), but considering the annual cost of treating back pain (in 2004, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reported the total cost to approach $194 billion, and In the Face of Pain estimates the annual per-person healthcare cost to range from $1,000 to $2,600), it’s a small price to pay. And if you want to start small, look for a memory foam body pillow or mattress cover – pillows typically cost less than $100, while mattress covers might cost up to a couple hundred dollars, depending on mattress size and the thickness of the cover.
Of course over-the-counter pain medications can also help reduce or alleviate back pain, but it’s important to use them with caution. Even though they’re readily available and considered mostly safe, it is possible to experience an accidental overdose, or to experience extreme side effects from prolonged use. For instance, according to WebMD, acetaminophen has replaced viral hepatitis as the leading cause of acute liver failure in the United States.
If your chronic back pain is leading to chronic pill-popping, talk to your doctor about how many pills you’re taking and whether you could be at risk for potentially life-threatening side effects. And as always, look for other, drug-free ways to reduce your pain.
Do you suffer from back pain? How do you treat yourself at home?