When an episode of back pain strikes it is tempting to contact a health professional straight away. But there are some self-help measures you can take at home that may ease the immediate pain without the need to resort to specialist help.
If back pain strikes suddenly or you feel that a problem is imminent, it is worth trying the following “first-aid” measures.
For acute pain, lie down for a while. You can lie on a bed, providing it is not too soft, or on the floor on a sleeping bag or blankets. Being in a horizontal position places the least strain on your spine. There is no right or wrong way to lie. You can lie on your back, on your front or on your side -whichever is the least painful.
If your muscles are in spasm it may take you a while to ease yourself on to the bed or down on to the floor. Try sitting on the edge of the bed and then rolling slowly on to it, or use a support to help you get to the floor. Whether you are on the bed or the floor, do not prop yourself up on pillows. Try to make do with a single pillow to support your neck.
If you are lying on your back you may find that a rolled-up towel or a pillow in the small of your back and two or three pillows under your knees make you more comfortable. If you are lying on your side, a pillow between your knees will support the upper leg and prevent it from flopping over forward, which can twist your spine. Lying in bed or on the floor will help relax muscles that are in spasm and you should find that the pain will ease slowly or disappear completely while you are in this position.
Although bed rest is comfortable and provides relief from back pain, it is not a good idea for more than a few days at most. There are two reasons for this. First, muscle strength diminishes surprisingly quickly if you lie in bed. Second, rest is not as effective as other treatments to which it has been compared for pain relief, rate of recovery and days lost from work. The answer is to keep yourself moving as much as possible. Once the severe pain has eased, change position frequently and try to get up and move around every half an hour or so.
When the words “pain relief” are mentioned, many people think only of pills. But there are other ways of alleviating pain that can work alongside painkilling drugs.
Do not be afraid to take painkillers during an acute episode of back pain. Drugs such as aspirin, paracetamol or one of the other over-the-counter preparations can ease your symptoms and so help break the vicious circle of muscle spasm and pain. Never exceed the maximum dose of a painkiller and if your acute pain continues for more than three or four days consult your doctor.
Applying heat to the painful area of your back can often be helpful, especially for lower back pain. A hot water bottle in a cover or wrapped in a towel and placed at the small of your back while you are lying down or sitting can be soothing. Alternatively, use an electric heating pad. If you feel an attack of back pain coming on, try taking a hot shower to relax you before applying a hot water bottle or pad. Hot baths can also be soothing and relaxing for a painful back but during an episode of acute pain it may be difficult to lower yourself into the bath – and even more difficult to clamber out again.