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6 ways to find back pain relief at home
That dull, sharp or shooting pain in your back is no joke. Experts share when it’s smart to see a doctor, and they give their top home remedy picks for when rest will do the trick.
You bend over to pick up a bag of groceries or a heavy Amazon box. Or you lean awkwardly into the backseat of your car while buckling your toddler into place. Or you shoot some hoops with friends, showing off some moves your body isn’t used to. And suddenly you feel a dull, sharp or shooting pain in your back.
Yep, it happens to the best of us. About 75% of people will experience back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Library of Medicine. Some back pain comes on suddenly, such as when you strain your back lifting something heavy or moving awkwardly. Or it can be brought on by a lingering issue. According to the Mayo Clinic, the culprits are many, but they could include a bulging disc, ligament strain or even arthritis.
No matter the source of your back pain, you deserve to find relief. In some cases, a bit of at-home TLC can help you feel better in no time. In others, your doctor may have to step in and help. Here’s how to tell the difference. (If you end up needing medication for back pain — or any other condition — we can help. Learn more.)
When you should see a doctor for back pain
There are 2 major red flags that should send you to a medical professional. The first is if an accident caused your back pain. “Any back pain that’s a result of trauma like a fall or car accident should get checked immediately,” says Kevin Baidoo, MD. He’s a physiatrist at Northwestern Regional Medical Group in Winfield, Illinois.
The second is if your back pain is severe or comes with other complications, says Mara Vucich, DO. She’s a physiatrist at the Maryland Spine Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore who treats individuals with a variety of spine conditions. “If you’re having severe back pain, numbness and tingling, weakness, or bladder and bowel incontinence, call the doctor right away,” she says. “This could indicate a problem in the spine that needs urgent attention.”
That said, a lot of back pain gets better on its own over days and weeks, says Dr. Vucich. If you don’t have any of these severe symptoms and your back pain sprung up after a day of shoveling or a pickup softball game instead of a fall, a do-it-yourself (DIY) remedy may be for you.
“Your body has a natural healing process,” Dr. Vucich says. “And there are many things you can do to help ease the pain.”
How to find back pain relief at home
The Optum Store has a range of over-the-counter (OTC) medications and products to help ease back pain and soothe sore or strained muscles. You can search for your remedy here or read on for some expert-backed picks.
Lidocaine patches or creams
Lidocaine is a local anesthetic that stops nerves from sending pain signals. Lidocaine patches and creams can both soothe back pain because they deliver numbing medication to a direct spot, Dr. Baidoo says. “The benefit is that they work fast, and you can decide exactly where the medication is administered,” he says. (One to try: Aspercreme®.)
Dr. Vucich agrees. “The patches are safe, and some patients find them helpful,” she says. “They’re low risk and something you can do for yourself.” (Here’s one you can try from Salonpas®.)
Back braces can be useful, supporting your lower back and allowing it to heal. But some also deliver targeted vibration therapy that can reduce pain.
“A compression wrap with a vibration function can be a great tool to address muscle soreness and pain,” says Dr. Baidoo. “It reduces soreness by disrupting pain signals that your body sends to your brain. It also increases blood flow, which can promote healing after a strenuous workout.”
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be effective for treating back pain, says Dr. Baidoo. “When we injure a muscle with a strain, there is a lot of inflammation,” he says. And this can be the source of that steady or throbbing pain. “For these situations,” says Dr. Baidoo, “I recommend NSAIDs.”
Dr. Baidoo’s top picks are ibuprofen (Advil®) and naproxen (Aleve®). Naproxen is a twice-a-day medication, whereas ibuprofen works best when taken 3 times a day, he says. “Check with your primary care doctor to make sure you don’t have any contraindications to NSAIDs,” Dr. Baidoo says.
Another important reminder: Don’t exceed the maximum dosage listed on the bottle. Dr. Baidoo suggests taking 800 mg of ibuprofen 3 times a day or 440 mg of naproxen twice a day. And if you don’t feel improvement after 2 weeks, it’s best to reach out to your doctor.
Topical anti-inflammatory creams
These creams work like oral NSAIDs. The difference: You can rub them on your skin to relieve pain instead of taking a pill. This can be helpful if you can’t take oral NSAIDs or they upset your stomach. A common OTC anti-inflammatory cream is diclofenac sodium 1% gel (Voltaren Arthritis Pain®).
“Even though there’s no strong evidence to support their use for low back pain, they’re relatively safe, and some patients report a benefit,” Dr. Vucich says. “Some research shows that rubbing a painful area may reduce the brain’s experience of the pain, so rubbing in a cream would qualify as being helpful.”
Arnica is an herb grown in the U.S. and Europe that has historically been used to treat bruises, aches and pains, says Dr. Baidoo. “Some studies show that it has some anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties,” he says. (Here’s an option from Kanjo®.)
The cream may cause some skin irritation, or more severe side effects if you’re allergic to arnica. “But if the cream has worked previously and given you relief, it’s an appropriate first-line treatment to try,” says Dr. Baidoo.
Heat and cold therapy
Although there’s not a lot of scientific evidence behind heat or cold therapy, according to a study in Postgraduate Medicine, both can be worth a try. Ice can help ease pain, swelling and inflammation, especially in the few first days of an injury. And heat can increase blood flow and relax tight muscles. One note: Hold off on applying heat for 48 hours, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
These can provide significant relief for muscle soreness and pain, especially for people who are active. “They work best for muscle-related pain,” says Dr. Baidoo. “So back pain that is a result of muscle dysfunction will respond best to this kind of treatment.”
One to try is the Theragun Wave Duo Vibration Massage Device. It’s a portable vibrating roller that can help release soreness and improve movement. You can find a range of other pain relief devices here.
These DIY remedies are meant to help with the pain and discomfort while your back heals. You may have to play around with what works best for you. But if you still have back pain after 2 weeks and your DIY remedies aren’t making you feel better, call your doctor, advises Dr. Vucich. The doctor can make sure there isn’t a larger issue lingering below the surface — and help you find more effective treatment.
Statistics on back pain: National Library of Medicine MedLine Plus (2016). “Back pain”
Symptoms and causes of back pain: Mayo Clinic (2020). “Back pain”
Heat and cold therapy: Postgraduate Medicine (2015). “Mechanisms and Efficacy of Heat and Cold Therapies for Musculoskeletal Injury”
Johns Hopkins Medicine (n.d.). “Ice Packs vs. Warm Compresses for Pain.”