Employee & Community Health

My back hurts: What do I do? 

10/8/2018 by Dr. Denise Dupras

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The main cause of acute low back pain is strain or sprain. Sprains or strains are brought on by doing something you haven't done in a while, like planting the garden, raking the lawn, cleaning the garage, moving furniture or repeated lifting of the growing grandchild we haven't seen in a while. 

So what can you do at home to decrease the pain and discomfort? The last article ("My back hurts: Now what?") talked about when you should seek medical attention, but most of us won't need an office visit to start on a plan toward getting better. 

Here are three key things you can do: 

  1. Remain active. There's good evidence that bedrest makes things worse. Stretching your back muscles will help maintain flexibility; resuming normal activities and avoiding things that worsen the pain will put you on the road to recover. But this is not the time to start strengthening your back muscles with new exercises. 
  2. Treat the area with heat or cold. While not supported by strong evidence, heat or cold can provide relief of pain and tightness. Never sleep with a heating pad or place ice directly on your skin, which can cause burns or frostbite. 
  3. Take over-the-counter pain relievers. Acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can provide pain relief. Try taking them regularly, three to four times a day, for the first couple of days to see if the pain lessens. As with any medication, make sure they're safe for you and don't interfere with any medication you are on, such as warfarin. 

If after two weeks you aren't any better, or you develop signs or symptoms suggesting something serious is going on, it's time to seek medical attention. 

Dr. Denise Dupras is a general internist in Employee and Community Health's Division of Community Internal Medicine. She completed her MD-PhD at Mayo Medical School and her residency in Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic Rochester. Her interests include medical education and evidence-based medicine.