Back pain self-care

Things you can do for yourself if you have back pain

Key points about back pain self-care

  • Back pain usually gets better over time without the need for treatment.
  • Here are some things you can do to help manage the pain and get better as soon as you can.
  • There's also advice on when you need to seek advice or help from a healthcare provider with your back pain.
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Video: Low back pain: how Joe got his life back

In this video, a person with low back pain shares their experience and provides insights on what aspects of their care were helpful, and what could have been improved. It may take a few moments to load.

(ACSQHC, Australia, 2022)

Low back pain can be worrying. Most episodes of low back pain will be much better within 2 weeks. Building a positive mindset for recovery helps a lot.

  • Being armed with knowledge about back pain can be helpful to keep a positive mindset.
  • Stories from people who have had back pain can be good to learn from and understand that you can be sore but safe.

Back pain can result in pain, muscle tension and stiffness that limits movement. This can be scary and make you feel that it is dangerous to move. Movement can be sore but safe. Gaining confidence that it is safe to move in a normal relaxed way is an important step to recovery.

Regaining confidence to move is a gradual process that involves relaxing the back and core muscles, and gently, moving the back more and more. This can start with simple exercises lying down and progress to standing exercises.

Video: Back stretches

This video may take a few moments to load.

(NHS, UK, 2013)

Back pain might make you think that you need to avoid activities that are good for your health and your recovery, such as daily activities, work, and regular physical activity.

  • Activities may need to be modified at first. Gradually building your activity levels and work demands will help you to get back to normal life quickly.
  • It's safe to have some pain while working or being active but if your pain is winding up or you are distressed it is okay to ease up.

Back pain is one of the most common reasons for time off work, but staying at work has been shown to improve recovery, although you may need to modify some tasks. When you have back pain, keep as active as you can.

Resting in bed doesn't help and can make symptoms worse. Although you may feel some pain when you're active, it is safe to exercise while you have back pain.

Benefits of keeping active

  • It helps you to keep doing things that are important or that you enjoy.
  • It helps you feel more positive.
  • It shifts your focus away from your back. 
  • It gives you an opportunity to be with others.
  • It improves your confidence in your back
  • It helps to control your pain.
  • It helps you feel more in control.
  • It enables you to be able to return to work more quickly.
  • It makes you feel better.

When you have back pain, it can be hard to see how you will get back to living normally. Setting short and long term recovery goals can help to plan and measure your progress. 

  • Set realistic short and long term goals. For example, if the long-term goal is to lift your children or grandchildren, but you’re struggling to bend, then set a short-term goal of bending easily and mid-term goals of gradually greater loads and different patterns.

Read more about how to set goals

Back pain can be frustrating and limiting. Some people are tempted to ignore the pain and push through. This can sometimes result in pain flares and fatigue.

  • Be kind to yourself. Take time to do things that help – get good restful sleep, take time to relax, rebuild confidence to move, get regular exercise and slowly build back up.

Connecting with family, friends, and workmates and doing things that add value and meaning to your life helps to keep you focused on the things that count.

  • Look for opportunities to meet with others and ways that you can get back to what you value. These activities are great to include in your goals.

Heat can sometimes help you to relax and ease pain.

  • You can apply moderate heat for up to 15 minutes at a time. After you have applied heat can be a good time to start some relaxed movement.

Most back pain settles quickly without medication. Pain medicines don't stop your pain and can be harmful long-term.

  • If you think that you need pain medicine, you should discuss this with your GP, nurse, or pharmacist.

You should seek health care if:

  • Your symptoms haven't started getting better within a few weeks.
  • You develop symptoms of serious or specific types of back pain (do self check again).
  • You're concerned about your back and worrying about it a lot.
  • You can't control your pain enough to get on with life.

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Dr Ben Darlow, musculoskeletal physiotherapy specialist in private practice; Associate Professor and researcher, University of Otago, Wellington.

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