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Lower Back Pain Self-Care Remedies That Top Docs Use Themselves to Get Relief Fast

Learn how taking a "gravity break" and closing your kitchen at this time can help

You’re bending down to tie your shoe or carrying groceries inside when you suddenly feel an aching twinge in your lower back. More than just a nuisance, backaches can often be downright debilitating. Here, experts explain what causes the ache in the first place and the best lower back pain self-care remedies that can help.

Lower back pain is incredibly common

Bring up your lower back pain in conversation with friends and family — or anyone, really — and chances are you’ll hear groans of understanding. That’s because back pain, especially low back pain, is widespread. Research suggests that upwards of 84% of people will deal with it at one time or another.

Pain in the lower back, or lumbar spine, is typically more common than pain in other parts of the back, explains Erica Hiller, CRNP, a nurse practitioner with the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

That’s because there’s a lot more motion in the lumbar spine (think bending down to pick something up or shoveling snow), which increases wear-and-tear. Plus, your lower back is supporting your body weight, so it’s carrying a heavier load.

What that pain actually feels like can vary. “Low back pain is very vague and non-specific,” Hiller says. “It can range from muscular type of aching pain and stiffness to a sharp, shooting pain. Some people, depending on underlying spinal conditions, can have pain that travels from the low back into the legs and cause numbness and tingling.”

An illustration of the lumbar spine, which is the source of lower back pain

What causes lower back pain?

These common culprits are often to blame:

1. Muscle strains

One common cause of lower back pain is a muscle or ligament sprain or strain, says Saloni Sharma, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute in Philadelphia and the author of The Pain Solution. “You could lift something heavy, sneeze the wrong way or twist, and these quick movements may strain the muscle or ligaments,” she says.

Related: 4 Ways to Speed-Heal a Pulled Muscle in Your Back + Why Leg Stretches Can Help

2. Disc problems

Degenerative disc disease (wear-and-tear that occurs in the spine) can also be a big factor. “When we’re young, there’s a good space in between each vertebrae where the disc is,” Hiller explains. “As we age, that disc space tends to wear out and it tends to pancake or flatten down. That’s just a normal, age-related change.”

3. Arthritis

Osteoarthritis, which is often driven by inflammation, can develop in the back joints, says Dr. Sharma, who also serves as a volunteer leader at The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. (Click through to see our best arthritis self-care tips.)

4. Menopause

Not only can menopause cause an uptick in inflammation, but as Hiller explains, estrogen changes can also increase your chances of developing osteoporosis and make you more susceptible to fractures.  

5. Other risk factors

Things like a high BMI, a history of scoliosis, previous injuries or inflammatory diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure can also up your risk for lower back pain, adds Dr. Sharma.

Related: What Causes Mid Back Pain + the Easy Shoulder Squeeze That Makes It Go Away

Lower back pain can flare up from everyday activities

If you’ve dealt with lower back pain before, you may worry about it returning. Some common causes for flare-ups? Activities or jobs associated with heavy lifting or bending, agree Dr. Sharma and Hiller. That includes twisting, like when you’re playing pickleball, or jobs that put a lot of weight on your lower back, like working as a mail carrier or nurse. (Learn how to soothe a sore back caused by gardening pain.)

A woman wearing a purple top holding a pickeball and paddle on a court

On the flip side, sitting too much or having a sedentary job can also aggravate back pain, says Dr. Sharma.  “There’s more disc degeneration with constant sitting and inactivity,” she explains. Plus when you’re seated, you’re using your muscles less and likely having not-so-great posture.

Sleep disturbances in general, including those associated with menopause, can also contribute to lower back pain. “If you’re not sleeping well, your body doesn’t get time to repair overnight and heal from the day’s little micro-traumas. Then you’re going to start your day at a worse place,” explains Dr. Sharma. “If your muscles don’t get to rest, you may have tighter muscles and greater inflammation before you even leave your bedroom.” (Learn how ashwagandha can improve sleep.)

Lower back pain self-care remedies

Whether you’re dealing with lower back pain right now or trying to keep future flare-ups at bay, there are self-care remedies that can help.

1. Try a heat + brace duo

When lower back pain starts, particularly in the first day or two, a heat wrap (like ThermaCare) can be a helpful self-care strategy, says Dr. Sharma. In fact, she’s used heat wraps for her own back pain in the past. Research proves it works. A study in Spine found that using a heat wrap for five days significantly reduced back pain, likely by loosening tight muscles and calming spasms.

For added support, Dr. Sharma recommends putting a back brace around the wrap. “The back brace supports the spine and helps reduce pain,” she explains. “It’s nice to use for a few hours a day during a painful flare, but not regularly as it can cause muscle weakness.”

2. Opt for ‘circadian eating’

One self-care strategy for lower back pain is to reduce inflammation throughout the body, says Dr. Sharma, who outlines a five-point inflammation cutting plan (called the “Relief-5R Plan”) in her book. As she explains, this “helps with back pain, it helps with heath span, it helps with life span. It’s a win-win-win.”

One of those points focuses on nutrition. That includes the type of food you eat — she likes the Mediterranean diet — as well as when you eat. To that end, she recommends circadian eating. This spin on intermittent fasting centers on eating during daylight hours, like from 7 am to 7 pm, Dr. Sharma explains.

A white dish with a clock set on a blue background, with a woman holding a fork and knife

It helps give “your body time to process that food and heal overnight,” Dr. Sharma says. That’s opposed to late-night eating, which can cause sugar and inflammation spikes. This interrupts your sleep and aggravates back pain, she adds. Picking a time to “close” the kitchen (say, 7 or 8 pm) can be helpful, says Dr. Sharma, who recommends this tactic to her patients.

3. ‘Scaffold’ your spine

As Dr. Sharma explains, you want to build a “scaffold” 360 degrees around your spine. Focusing on core muscles like your abs and obliques can help protect the back. “It’s like a natural brace,” she says. Pilates, which targets your core, is one way to do that.

A review in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that people with lower back pain who did Pilates saw a significant improvement in pain relief. Ready to get started? Check out the 10-minute pilates for back video below:

4. Take a ‘gravity break’

Another lower back pain self-care remedy Dr. Sharma suggests is taking a gravity break. Simply lie on your back on your couch or bed for 10 minutes. (She gives bonus points for listening a mindfulness app at the same time.) Since gravity is compressing your spine all day, a gravity break provides an opportunity to open it up and take the pressure off, Dr. Sharma explains. A great time to do it: After you’ve prepped dinner following a long day — what she calls the “bewitching hour” for back pain flare-ups.

5. Modify your workouts

Dr. Sharma suggests skipping exercises that involve jumping, or modifying if there’s jumping involved (like in a Zumba class). Road running is also not the best for people with back pain, she says. But if you love running, doing it once a week on a track or treadmill is a better option, since those surfaces have more give. You also want to avoid things like squats with heavy weights, since this can put an increased load on the lower back, says Hiller. Instead, stick with a lower weight and higher reps. (Click through to see Denise Austin’s best standing ab workouts for women over 50.)

6. Stand up this way

For people with back pain, going from sitting to standing can be hard, especially if you’re in a flare or feeling stiff, says Dr. Sharma. If you’ve been sitting for more than an hour, first march in place while seated. Then tighten your stomach when you get up so you activate your core and take some pressure off your back, she advises. Also, be mindful of how you bend and twist in general. For instance, instead of bending over to tie your shoes, sit down and bring your shoe to you, recommends Hiller.

7. Consider OTC anti-inflammatories

Another self-care remedy that’s helpful when lower back pain strikes is to take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory like Motrin or Advil. Hiller often advises patients to initially take them around-the-clock for an acute flare-up, then as needed as things start to calm down. (Just be sure your doctor okays taking NSAIDs, since they’re not recommended for people with certain conditions like an ulcer.)

Topical, anti-inflammatory gels can also be helpful. “A good one that we generally recommend is Voltaren gel,” says Hiller. “It’s actually a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory gel. For patients that can’t take NSAIDs by mouth, that can be very effective to just rub on the area.”  The typical recommendations is to apply it twice a day, says Hiller. Just get all-clear from your doctor first.

Related: 6 Ways to Ease Back Pain for Fast Relief — All MD-Approved and Proven to Work

Lower back pain self-care: When to visit your doctor

In general, if your back pain lasts longer than a couple of weeks or if you also have symptoms like severe numbness, weakness, loss of leg function or loss of bowel/bladder control, you want to reach out to your healthcare provider. This could indicate a deeper issue.

A woman visiting her doctor for lower back self-care as the doctor examines her back in her office

One term that’s important know when visiting your doctor: “Bikini medicine”. This is the concept that medicine views men and women the same “except for the parts covered by a bikini,” explains Dr Sharma. 

“The idea is that the diagnoses and treatments for back pain and other medical issues are based on studies primarily done on men, and the results are applied to women with the assumption that the outcomes are the same,” Dr. Sharma explains. “But women are unique at a cellular level, a genetic level and a hormonal level.”

That matters. “If your symptoms don’t match textbook findings, because the textbook is based on someone else’s gender and how they present, then you are more likely to get dismissed or shuffled from provider to provider,” Dr. Sharma reveals.

How to talk to your doctor about lower back pain self-care

When visiting your provider, instead of focusing on the level of pain (like a 7 out of 10), describe how the pain impacts your daily life. For example, that you can’t pick up a case of water at the store or can’t walk to the mailbox, advises Dr. Sharma. She says this, along with telling your provider other methods you’ve tried to find relief, can help your provider further understand that your pain is real and serious.

For more ways to ease back pain:

6 Ways to Ease Back Pain for Fast Relief — All MD-Approved and Proven to Work

How to Get Rid of a Neck Hump — And Soothe Neck and Back Pain in the Process

What Causes Mid Back Pain + the Easy Shoulder Squeeze That Makes It Go Away

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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