Almost everyone experiences lower back pain at some point in their lives. Luckily, lower back pain usually gets better and is unrelated to a serious medical problem. Most individuals who develop back pain do not need to be treated with pills or procedures.
Instead, managing your pain can become an opportunity to make lifestyle changes that not only help you feel better now, but also powerfully improve your well-being for the future. Here are a few research-backed ways to get started.
Stay active and keep moving
When you are in pain, moving around may seem counterintuitive. But exercise is actually one of pain’s most important and proven remedies. Your body was made to move, and even with an injury, the old adage holds true: Use it or lose it. Multiple research studies demonstrate patients who are advised to stay active report greater reductions in pain compared to patients advised to rest in bed (Dahm, 2010).
But not every type of exercise may be beneficial. Depending on the underlying cause of your pain, you may need to focus on certain types of movements and steer clear of others. To effectively use movement as medicine, work with a movement expert like a physical therapist, who can evaluate your strengths and weaknesses from head-to-toe and create a personalized exercise plan. In addition, consider mixing in modalities like yoga and Pilates—which can be easily adapted to accommodate injuries—to your daily movement dose.
Watch what you eat
In addition to physical activity, your diet can also affect the pain you feel. At a basic level, excess body weight can increase your pain by adding mechanical stress to the muscles and bones of your back (Shiri, 2009).
Emerging evidence also suggests diet can influence your pain in less obvious ways, too. Modern diets are now known to produce low levels of chronic inflammation throughout the body. Normally, inflammation is the body’s natural response to an infection or injury. It is a short-lived process that helps our bodies fight off unwanted germs and heal wounds. However, both obesity and certain foods can cause the immune system to repeatedly misfire, creating a constant, low-grade inflammation which can be harmful overtime.
What foods can make inflammation worse? Processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and sugary beverages top the list of pro-inflammatory foods. Low-grade inflammation associated with these diets is not just linked to back pain but multiple other chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers (Li, 2020; Tabung, 2018).
You can shift the balance and help lower your pain by eating inflammation-fighting foods like berries, wild-caught fish, whole grains, and more.
Your everyday posture can also significantly contribute to your pain. When we slouch in our chairs, our lower backs feel significantly more pressure than they do when we sit up tall or stand upright. If you have to be stationary for long periods of time during the day, simple ergonomic solutions can help prevent and improve back pain (Jaromi, 2012). Try these research-backed remedies:
- Use seats with lumbar support for the lower back.
- Maintain an appropriate viewing distance from the computer screen (about 20 inches).
- Adjust your keyboard to a height that allows your elbows to bend at 90 degrees.
- Try a standing desk and remember to change positions often throughout the day.
Relax your mind
When your body experiences pain, it activates a fight-or-flight response. This response (which is built-in to help us survive) releases hormones like cortisol that help us respond quickly to danger. While helpful in short doses (like if you need to quickly flee a ferocious tiger, for example), this stress response can take a toll on the body when repeatedly activated. Overtime, it can actually worsen your symptoms.
Mindfulness—a diverse set of practices that encourages you to live in the moment—can help you reset this constant stress response, improve your coping skills, and lower your pain (NIH, 2018). Practices like meditation and deep breathing exercises, for example, have been shown to help lower pain by teaching your mind how to shift its focus away from stressful stimuli (NIH, 2016). Some mindfulness-based practices (like Tai chi and yoga) combine a mind-body approach, boasting additional pain-relieving powers by improving balance, strength, and flexibility (Anheyer, 2017).
Often used as a compliment to mindfulness, acupuncture has also shown proven benefits in the treatment of lower back pain (Cherkin, 2009). Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique where thin needles are inserted into the body. Developing research also suggests acupuncture improves mood and decreases stress levels (Wu, 2012). Although not proven, acupuncture may work by releasing the body’s natural painkilling and mood enhancing chemicals.
Get the rest you need
If you suffer from back pain, you may have trouble falling and staying asleep. This can set off a vicious cycle, as research shows poor sleep can also increase your brain’s sensitivity to pain (Haack, 2012). Getting a sufficient amount of sleep (seven or more hours per night) not only helps reduce your pain but is also necessary for optimal overall health (CDC, 2018).
If you need to get more sleep, start by resetting your bedtime routine. An effective sleep routine involves consistently going to bed at the same time and creating a restful environment. Small studies have emphasized the benefits of wind-down activities like avoiding electronic devices up to 30 minutes before bed and making your room as dark and quiet as possible (Figueiro, 2011; Alessi, 2005).
Make a comprehensive plan
Although back pain is a common problem, there are plentiful ways to improve it within your everyday reach. An integrated team of health care professionals, including physicians, physical therapists, dieticians and health coaches, can help you understand all of your options and design a personal care plan just for you.