Ask the Doctor: Relieving Back Pain

Q. Shoveling the snow has made old back pains return. What can I do to alleviate the pain?

 

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Shoveling snow can be a hazard to your back in the winter.

A. Before relying on a strong pain medication, there are many options for you to try. First, try consistent 20- minute applications of ice over the painful parts of your back to decrease the pain and inflammation caused over the course of the day. Then, switch to heat after several days. The warm pack or heating pad will relax your back muscles and step up the blood flow to the affected spots. Warm baths or showers with the head directed to the affected area will also bring relief and relaxation.

Although it may go against your intuition, resting your back is not helpful. The muscles may seize up. Instead, slowly get up and move around. Exercise that doesn’t rely on back pressure brings effective relief. Consider swimming, yoga, Tai Chi or walking.

When you do rest and go to bed, lie on your side with a pillow between your knees. This will take the strain off your back as it is in a more natural, neutral position. If you must sleep on your back, place the pillow under your knees. This position will allow you to sleep much better and allow your body to start healing.

Another activity that brings comfort and relaxation is having a weekly massage for 2-3 months. Research shows that by doing this, you can relieve chronic back pain for up to 6 months.

Check Your Posture

Having the proper posture places your spine in alignment. Relax your shoulders. Insert a pillow between your lower back and seat while sitting in an upright position.

Consult a physical therapist to learn the proper way to stand, sit and move in a manner that eases back strain. Physical therapists can do spinal manipulation to restore mobility and provide spinal adjustments to ensure the alignment.

Therapists also tailor an exercise program for you that promote flexibility, endurance and strength to the back muscles, lessening the pain.

Alternative Therapies

Consider biofeedback. This process employs a machine that teaches you how to diminish your pain response by controlling your breathing, heart rate and muscle tension. Research shows that this can alter pain by almost a third.

Acupuncture by a licensed practitioner is a process by which special needles are inserted along meridians to stimulate nerves for back pain reduction. Mild electric pulses can also be sent to specific nerves to block inbound pain signals. (TENS or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)

Pain Management

Nonprescription pain medication in the form of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and acetaminophen have often aided with back pain. Use them in conjunction with the above therapies

If your pain is due to inflammation, physicians specializing in pain management can give spinal injections or epidurals containing corticosteroids into the back for relief.

Therapy

Have you ever heard people say that all of their stress went to their back? Consider eliminating stressful situations in your life and taking breaks from a stressful job. Behavioral therapy has been shown to give great relief from back pain.

Antidepressants may be prescribed in some cases, even when you’re not depressed. These medications travel along the same neural pathways and by altering the chemical messengers; lessen pain signals to the body.

If pain persists despite your attempts to try various therapies, it may be time to consider additional medical examinations. Have your doctor rule out a bulging disc, which can apply pressure on a nerve (in which case surgery may be indicated).

And avoid lifting any heavy objects (more than 5 pounds). This means your children will have to shovel the snow the next time!

Read our Back Pain Patient Guide before you talk to your doctor about your back pain symptoms.