What do you really mean when you say, “I threw my back out ”?
Most people use this figure of speech when they experience sudden and sharp pain in their back — what’s known as acute back pain — while doing some activity, such as gardening or shoveling or even something as simple as bending over to pick up a pencil. “But the expression can mean a number of different things,” says Mary Ann Wilmarth, a physical therapist in Boston and a spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association.
Acute back pain can have a number of causes, including a muscle spasm or a disk injury. Other conditions such as infections and tumors also can cause acute back pain, but they are far less common. If you have sudden acute back pain that doesn’t get better within 24 hours, you should call your doctor, Dr. Wilmarth says. Always call your doctor if your pain is severe or unrelenting, as well as if you experience other symptoms such as fever, numbness, and progressive weakness.
Back Pain Treatment
If you throw out your back and it’s a muscle injury, use these tips to get relief:
Rest. Find a place on the floor where you can lie flat on your stomach — you want to be on a hard surface rather than a cushy bed. Let your hands relax by your side. “This puts the back in a more neutral position,” Wilmarth says. Then, relax your back muscles, which takes pressure off the nerves that are causing you pain. You can turn your head to one side or roll a towel into a “U” and use it as a forehead rest so you can face the floor.
Take anti-inflammatories. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) should provide some relief. If your pain is severe and doesn’t subside, talk to your doctor about prescription pain relief.
Ice it. Apply ice to your sore back for the first 24 hours to 48 hours. “Once you get over the acute stage, you can switch to heat,” Wilmarth says. Radiating back pain can come from swelling, and ice can help reduce swelling.
Get a massage. There’s some evidence that a soothing massage may help to relieve acute back pain. A review study published in The Cochrane Library in 2015 found that massage may ease lower back pain in the short term, though more research is needed to know whether it’s an effective long-term treatment.
Strengthen and stretch. Once your pain has subsided, you should begin to strengthen and stretch your back muscles. Stretching exercises can restore motion and relieve pain. Pain from overstretching or injuring the muscles or ligaments in your lower back should subside within a few days. If it does not, consult your doctor.
Back Pain Management: What Else You Can Do
Following a healthy lifestyle can help you take care of your back and even prevent further back injury. Start with these tips:
Maintain a healthy weight. Carrying extra weight, especially around the stomach, can put strain on your back.
Get regular exercise. Being a couch potato can put you at risk for back injuries. But if you’ve suffered a back injury, opt for low-impact activities until you're fully recovered. Walking is an excellent low-impact activity that doesn’t place undo stress on your back, Wilmarth says.
Warm up before exercising. Before you go for a run or play tennis, warm your muscles with stretching. Ten to 15 minutes of walking or gentle movements is ideal. Stretch your muscles slowly. Don’t bounce and don’t hold your breath while stretching. Inhale deeply as you stretch and exhale as you relax.
Avoid high heels. Heels can cause back problems. If you do wear high heels, limit how much time you spend in them. Try this: Wear supportive flats as you travel to your destination and change into heels at the event.
Lift with your knees. Bend down with your knees, not over with your back, to lift objects — heavy or light. Twist your back when you lift, and you’re risking injury.
Do not smoke. Smoking can restrict blood flow. When blood flow is impaired, your spinal tissues can be deprived of oxygen and other nutrients.
Stand tall. Sit erect and stand straight. Hunching over will strain your back and put you at risk for further injury.