There are a lot of things you can do yourself to manage your back pain.
Doing things differently
A lot of back and neck problems are caused or aggravated by the way we do everyday things. The way we sit, move, lift and sleep can strain and stress the back. Changing the way we do these things can have a positive effect on spine health.
Notice how you’re reading your screen right now. Is your back straight? Are you slumped in your chair? Is your chin pushed forward? If you’re at a desk, notice if your hand is resting permanently on your mouse. Notice the height and position of your screen. Are you looking up or down? How long have you been sitting like this? When did you last get up and have a stretch?
Sitting for long periods can compress the discs in your spine, adding to the natural wear and tear that’s part of ageing. As discs degenerate they can become painful.
It’s easy to get into bad habits, not just in the time and the way we sit but also the way we walk, stand, drive, watch TV and even lie in bed. Things like lifting furniture, pulling sheets off the line and even getting children out of the bath can also take their toll.
Noticing the way you do everyday things is a good starting point. An occupational therapist or physiotherapist can give you advice and training on safer, healthier ways of doing things — ways that will help protect your back and neck from injury and further pain.
Ask your employer for a workplace ergonomic assessment to understand how to protect your back.
Exercise can help your back pain and may prevent pain from getting worse. It can increase your body’s production of endorphins — your body’s natural painkillers – and help strengthen the muscles supporting your spine and mobilise your joints. Going for a brisk 30-minute walk on most days is a good way to fit exercise into your day. If 30 minutes is too much for your back, try doing 3 lots of 10 minutes instead.
A personalised exercise program designed with the help of a physiotherapist is usually aimed at strengthening muscles while stabilising and mobilising joints to take the pressure off your spine. Increasing your endurance and improving your balance may also help with your overall health and wellbeing. The type and intensity of the exercises will depend on what’s wrong with your back and your fitness level. Starting low and going slow is sensible if you haven’t exercised for a while.
Before beginning an exercise program, you need to get an accurate diagnosis for the cause of your pain, so talk to your doctor before you begin.
Long periods of bed rest are no longer recommended for back pain. Instead, doctors recommend short periods of rest, a few hours at a time, for no more than one or two days. To ease the pain in your back, try putting a pillow between your knees when you’re lying on your side, or under your knees when you’re lying on your back. If you’re resting on your stomach, a pillow under your hips can help. Try not to rest on your stomach, as it places stress on the small joints in your neck.
Being overweight may be increasing your back pain as extra weight can put stress on your spine. If you’re carrying extra weight on your stomach, it pulls your pelvis forward, increasing lower back pain. Being overweight can also make it difficult to move around, and lack of movement can contribute to back pain. A combination of a healthy diet and increased physical activity is a good way to start reducing weight. Check with your doctor before you begin any diet or exercise regime and consider getting a referral to a dietitian.
If your back problem is due to osteoarthritis, you may benefit from our 18-week Healthy Weight for Life weight loss program for people living with osteoarthritis. It includes activity and portion-controlled eating plans, online tracking plus support via phone, SMS and email. The program is free to eligible HCF members with hospital cover.
A TENS machine
TENS stands for Transcutaneous (through the skin) Electrical Nerve Stimulation. It’s a little battery-operated device with electrodes you stick onto your skin near the pain site. It generates a small electric current that gives a tingling sensation. You can control the strength and type of current that it provides.
TENS works by helping to block the pain pathways in your spine and can be effective in relieving chronic pain. You can buy a TENS machine at many pharmacies. Your physiotherapist can help to position it correctly and your health insurance may cover you for part of the cost.
Improving your mood
Most people with chronic back pain have a lowered mood and may even have depression. This is completely understandable given the toll that chronic pain takes on everyday life. Symptoms of depression include:
- a change in appetite — either increased or decreased
- difficulty sleeping, or sleeping too much
- difficulty socialising
- losing interest in things you usually enjoy
- chronic tiredness
- difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty.
Doctors believe that chronic pain and depression can feed off each other, making both problems worse.
If your pain is making you depressed, seek help from your GP. Antidepressant medications can help to improve your mood and some of them work on pain pathways as well, so they may also help with the pain.
Your GP can also refer you to a psychologist for cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) which can help you manage your daily life and the way you think about the future.
Many people find that mindful meditation has a positive effect on chronic pain. You can do a short course or even teach yourself to do it at home. You may experience less pain while you meditate, and it can have lasting effects that alter your perception of pain. Look for a meditation teacher in your local area. There are also YouTube videos and phone apps that can train and guide you in mindful meditation.
Hot and cold packs
Both hot and cold packs can be helpful for acute back pain but less so for chronic back pain. Cold packs reduce inflammation and tend to help acute muscular strains. Hot packs block pain signals and encourage healing. Some people alternate between the two, while others find that just one type of pack works best for them.
You can get instant adhesive heat packs from your pharmacist that provide consistent heat to soothe your painful back or neck for 8 hours.
A hot bath with relaxing music and scented candles may help soothe the pain.