11 Ways To Ease Lower Back Pain

Photo: Getty Images
If you’ve ever felt an aching pain in your lower back, you’re definitely not alone. Lower back pain is extremely common, with about 80% of people experiencing it at some point in their lives.

Lower back pain can be caused by any number of things, including serious injuries from a car accident or from lifting something heavy, says Daniel Seidler, a physical therapist at Westchester Square Physical in the Bronx, NY.

The most common cause of lower back pain, though, is too much sitting, Seidler says. That's because while sitting may feel comfortable for your legs, it actually puts a lot of pressure on the bottom portion of your spine, which can result in gradual wear and tear if you're not careful. “Picture two rocks pressing down on one side of a balloon,” he says. “Your lower back is the balloon. So if you push down long enough or hard enough, it’ll start to wear down."

In that light, one of the best things you can do to prevent this common problem is to simply move around more while you're at work (which is where we desk jockeys do the vast majority of our sitting). That could mean investing in a standing desk or making a note to stand and stretch every hour or so. You should also incorporate regular exercise into your daily routine — keeping the back muscles strong helps support your spine.

Already in pain? The good news is most of the time, you can find relief with simple home remedies. Read on for the tricks that help alleviate that ache.
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Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Quit smoking.

It sounds weird, but studies have shown a consistent link between chronic back pain and smoking cigarettes. One study from way back in 1983 found that, out of 1,221 people, those with the most severe back pain were significantly more likely to be smokers.

The good news is, a more recent study published in the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery found that quitting smoking can help alleviate that pain — even among those with serious back issues. The researchers here looked at data from over 5,000 patients with pain related to a spinal disorder. They found that those who smoked had higher pain rating than those who didn't. But those who gave up the habit saw far greater improvements in their pain than those who kept smoking.
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Photo: Getty Images.
Ditch the stilettos.
We hate to be a bummer, but guess what? High heels aren’t just bad for your feet; they can be bad for your back, too.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, high heels affect the way you stand and move, and they change your posture in a way that can exacerbate your lower back pain. Essentially, they make your lower back muscles work a little more, which could lead to problems. And as John M. Giurini, DPM, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center says, high heels throw off your alignment and center of gravity. So, especially when a physician can't find another cause of the back pain, it's important to look at your foundation: your feet.

If you’re feeling an ache, those sky-high stilettos (or even your most modest pair of heels — the alignment problems start at just two inches, research shows) might be part of the problem. Switch to sneakers until you feel better, to give your back a chance to rest.
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Photo: Getty Images
Adjust your sleeping position.
There are ways to reduce back pain while you sleep — all you’ll need is an extra pillow. Depending on your sleeping position, a strategically-placed pillow can ease your lower back pain and balance out your alignment to make it easier to wake up without pain.

If you sleep on your back, placing a small pillow under your knees can take off a bit of the stress on your spine.

If you’re a stomach-sleeper, a pillow under your stomach/pelvic area can help keep your spine level.

For side-sleepers, a pillow between the knees will keep your upper leg from taking your spine out of alignment, and reduce any stress on your lower back.

Most of us change positions through the night, and you’ll likely have to try a few different things to see what works for you, but the key is to use a pillow to fill in any gaps between your body and the mattress. That way, your neck will be aligned with your chest and lower back.
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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
Give your spine a rest.
Another way to alleviate pain right away is the the 90-90 position, which is an easy, fast way to take the pressure off your lower back completely, Siedler says.

To do it, all you have to do is lay down flat on the floor on your back, while bending your knees so that your legs are bent like an L. The key is to keep your knees aligned with the hips, so you're creating a 90-degree angle. If it's helpful, you can rest your feet on a chair so you can totally relax in the position.
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Make it to yoga.
While you may not feel like moving right now, a good stretching session may be just what you need.

According to a 2011 study from the Archives of Internal Medicine, yoga and stretching may have long-lasting benefits when it comes to back pain — but you have to make it to class regularly.

For the study, researchers separated roughly 230 adults with back pain into three groups: The people in the first two groups received 12 weekly classes of either yoga or stretching exercises, while the remaining 45 volunteers got only a self-care book that described the causes of back pain and suggested exercise and lifestyle changes to reduce pain.

After 3 months, the people who got in-person instruction, either in yoga or stretching, had significantly less pain than those who got sent home with advice. The people who went to class continued to be better even at 6 months — compared to the self-care group, more of the yoga and stretching participants were able to reduce their reliance on pain relief medication.
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Use a hot (or cold) compress.
For immediate relief, Seidler recommends an ice or heat compress directly over the area where it hurts. While it used to be thought that ice is better for acute injuries (like a sprain) and heat is better for more chronic pain, most experts say either can work.

Ice may help reduce swelling, but heat may be better if you're feeling tense.“If you have some muscle spasms, putting some heat on it will feel really good,” Seidler says. “It’ll soften up the muscles, make them feel more limber, and it’ll ease some pain at least in the short term.”
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Photographed by Geordy Pearson.
Switch out your mattress.
You spend (hopefully) at least eight hours a night on your mattress, so it’s no wonder that a bad or old mattress can exacerbate back problems. According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, people who switched to new mattresses after five years experienced less back pain than those who stuck with the same one. (Another pretty obvious benefit, of course, was that they also slept a lot better.)

To be specific, the participants’ beds were replaced with new medium-firm beds. That said, not everyone responds to the same level of firmness, and you’ll probably want to find something that works best for you. According to The Sleep Foundation, most mattresses have a lifespan of around eight years, though some experts say that this lifespan is shorter if you’re over 40. But if you're wake up feeling stiff, it might be time for a change.
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Photographed by Jens Ingvarsson.
Fix your posture.
By now, you know that sitting at a desk all day isn’t great for your back. But it’s not the actual sitting that’s throwing your back out of whack; it’s the way you’re sitting.

If you spend the workday sitting at a desk, it’s likely that you also have to be hunched over, looking at a computer screen.

"People tend to either slump forward or brace themselves at attention," Lindsay Newitter, of New York's Posture Police, told us. "You see people squashing everything down, leaning towards the screen...the chin juts forward and the head tilts back."

It happens pretty unconsciously, so you most likely don’t realize you’re doing it.

A few simple fixes? Start by moving your monitor up to eye level so that you don’t have to lean over to look at it. If your feet don’t touch the floor, get a small step stool to place them on, thereby giving your lower back a little extra support.
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Photo: Getty Images.
Know when to see a pro.
Of course, if none of these at-home remedies are working and you’re still in pain, it might be time to seek professional help.

If, on a scale of one to 10, your pain level is at about five or higher, and it’s lasting for more than two weeks, you’ll want to see your doctor, who can help diagnose the problem and refer you to a physical therapist, if needed.

While most cases of back pain resolve on their own, a physical therapist can prescribe exercises that strengthen the muscles around your spine (like your obliques and hip flexors) in an effort to stabilize the back, Seidler says.
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Be mindful.
If your back pain just won't quit, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that using your mind might help.

Sounds straight out of X-men, but the study assessed the value of mindfulness-based stress reduction, a program developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s, and cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that helps reframe negative thoughts and is a research-backed treatment for chronic pain.

The 342 participants, most of whom had suffered back pain for at least a year, were offered either eight weekly sessions of mindfulness training, eight sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy; or to keep doing whatever they'd been doing up until the study.Of those who did the mindfulness training (which included meditation and yoga instruction), 43.6 % reported a meaningful reduction in pain 26 weeks later. Of those who had cognitive behavioral therapy, 44.9% reported significant improvements, compared to 26.6 percent in the usual care group — despite the fact that most people didn't attend all eight sessions of the programs.

If your back pain just doesn’t seem to be going away even after a trip to the doctor, mindfulness might be worth a shot. And If you’re looking for ways to start meditating, we’ve got you covered.
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Photo: Getty Images.
Try biofeedback training.
If you’ve got persistent back pain, another drug-free method of pain relief could prove to be effective.

In a study published last year in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, a set of participants wore wireless, motion-sensing patches on their backs for 10 weeks. Half of the participants (58) received biofeedback (electronic monitoring) from sensors about the way they moved their bodies. Essentially, a clinician looked at the data in the sensors to see what their problems might have been, and came up with a set of instructions for how to fix the issues.

At the end of the study, those who received biofeedback treatment reported moderate to large improvements in their back pain compared to those who didn’t.

The treatment is still in its early days, but might soon prove to be a viable option for treating back pain.

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