It can hit when you least expect it. You bend over to pick something up or turn a certain way and — yeow! — you feel a pang in your lower back, and suddenly it hurts to stand up straight or even walk. Or, the pain may come on gradually, feeling more dull and uncomfortable.
Either way, you’re likely to experience lower back pain at some point in your life — 80 percent of people do, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. What’s more, it doesn’t only target those who are on their feet all day. A survey by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) found that more than half of those with lower back pain sit much of their workday. It also found that pain interferes with the ability to do daily tasks for 39 percent of adults, while it disrupts the sleep and the exercise routines of more than a third.
Whether you’ve experienced pain in the past, are currently nursing an aching back or are hoping to avoid it altogether, here are five key things to know or do:
It’s probably not seriousWhile back pain can be, both literally and figuratively, a pain that interferes with your activities, most of the time it’s temporary, resulting from simple overuse, a strain or minor injury, according to the APTA. Back pain is also more common as you get older and intervertebral discs begin to naturally lose fluid and flexibility. Weak stomach and back muscles can also contribute.
You can help prevent itYour mother was on to something if she scolded you for slouching. Your spine is responsible for supporting the heavy load that is your upper body, and is best equipped to manage it when straight and steady. So, try to keep your back straight and shoulders back; when standing, keep weight evenly balanced on feet and, when sitting, choose seats with good lumbar support. Other simple tricks: Wear comfortable shoes when walking, stretch before exercising, incorporate back and abdominal strengthening moves into your workout routine and always lift from the knees, avoiding twisting your back or body while lifting heavy objects.
Be sure to keep movingInactivity can contribute to and be a risk factor for lower back pain, says Mike Wah, PT, DPT, OCS, a physical therapist with Active Life & Sports Physical Therapy, which is affiliated with the Greater Baltimore Medical Center system. If you’re experiencing pain, resist the urge to stay in bed, which research shows may make things worse. Instead, try to keep as normal a routine as possible. “Walk, bike or do whatever cardio activity you prefer,” Wah says.
Stretch — and not only your backBecause hamstrings, hip flexors and other muscles connect to the lower back, tightness in those areas can put added stress on the back, Wah says. Check out the video above for a few easy ways to loosen up.
Try physical therapy firstHot and cold packs, over-the-counter pain relievers and stretching shown in the video can help ease acute pain, but if things don’t improve after about 10 days (or pain radiates down your leg), consider seeing a physical therapist who can help with assessment, stretches, strengthening exercises and other helpful strategies, says Joe Palmer, PT, DPT, OMPT, CSCS, CMTPT, a physical therapist also with Active Life & Sports. “The trend now is to try to steer people away from prescription medication and injections as first choice solutions for back pain,” he says. (You can follow the movement through the #TryPTfirst.)
Note: Always consult your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.