Ice, then heat
If your back is throbbing, it's time to break out the ice pack, which will help to numb the pain and bring down inflammation, according to Shelly Coffman, PT, of 360° Sports Medicine and Spine Therapy in Portland, Oregon. If you're just feeling a bit stiff, try alternating ice with gentle heat, like from a heating pad or warm washcloth. Applying heat to sore muscles will help to relax them and bring fresh blood to the achy area. You can alternate between cold and hot for up to 10 minutes at a time several times a day, or try these home remedies for back pain.
Get some over-the-counter help
If you're feeling stiff in the morning, try taking an Advil or Motrin. These drugs have anti-inflammatory properties that provide quick relief. Tylenol does not have the same anti-inflammatory benefits, but it can help with pain management. (Find out how to tell if your back pain is one of these sciatica symptoms.)
Evaluate your bed
While a soft, squishy mattress might seem like a cozy nest, it can lead to a lot of morning back pain. A firmer mattress is your best bet to prevent morning back pain. But don't go too firm—an unyielding mattress can introduce its own back problems. "Look for a mattress that will allow your 'hard points' to sink in, but not the rest of you—you want the shoulder and hip to sink in a little bit, but then the rest of the spine to be supported," Coffman says. "When looking from the side, the spine should look very straight—not bent." How you sleep on the mattress matters too. For your best back health, it's best to sleep on your side or on your back (sorry stomach sleepers). Sleeping on your stomach can aggravate back pain because it can put your head in an unnatural position for extended periods of time, throwing off your alignment. It can also put your low back in extension for a prolonged period, closing down joint space. Placing a firm pillow between the knees can allow the hips and pelvis to stay in alignment, keeping any rotation from coming into the spine from sleeping with one leg up, Coffman advises. Here are the best sleep positions for 11 common health concerns.
Ease into the morning
If you're waking up with back pain first thing, the culprit may be what you do during those first few minutes after you wake up. Do you hit the snooze button one time too many, and then end up bounding out of bed to avoid being late? Instead, take a minute to ease into your day with gentle stretches. Coffman recommends the following stretch: Lying on your back with your knees bent, rock your knees side to side in a middle range of motion. Backward bending and rotation can also ease inflammation and get blood moving relatively quickly. Once you're out of bed, be careful getting into the shower. "Discs are most hydrated and full in the mornings," says Coffman. "Not moving enough and going straight into the shower stiff can put stress on cranky discs." These exercises can also ease back pain over time, as you strengthen and stretch your muscles.
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Commuting by car can aggravate even the healthiest back. You can help prevent pain starting with good driving posture. Coffman advises keeping your seat at 100 degrees, which is just slightly back from straight. Your headrest should be touching the middle of the back of your head, with your lower back flush against the seat. If your car does not have lumbar support, place a small pillow or rolled up towel against the seat. A seat that tilts down allows your pelvis to provide better support for your whole body. Lastly, move your seat up enough that you don't have to lean forward to reach the steering wheel. If you've been in the car for a while, give yourself a short walking or stretching break to keep the blood flowing and your back limber.
Poor posture can do a number on your back, and one of the most notorious places for bad posture is at the computer. Positioning your computer properly can help. You'll want to keep the screen at eye level, so your eyes are right at the middle of the screen when you're sitting up straight. Keep your neck, shoulders and hips all facing toward the computer, with everything within a comfortable reach and gaze. Coffman recommends doing an hourly "posture check." Set a timer for one minute, and give yourself the best posture you can for that minute. Think about elongating the spine like a marionette, with your shoulders relaxed and heavy, being pulled toward your back pockets. This is the correct alignment for your spine and naturally feels good. Because it feels good, you may soon find yourself self-correcting your posture more often than hourly. Try these tips to improve your posture.
Check your soles
If your job or lifestyle requires a lot of standing, invest in some good shoes. "Lack of support means that the force from your foot hitting the ground gets absorbed in your feet, knees, hips, and back," says Coffman. For some people, an over-the-counter orthotic insert can help to align the feet. "Having something that helps keep your foot in a more neutral position, like an arch support, can keep the muscle fatigue from showing up in the feet and elsewhere," Coffman says. These are the shoe mistakes that can trigger aches and pains.
Get a lift
We've all heard the warning when trying to move a heavy object: "Bend from your knees! Don't use your back!" When lifting a heavy object, squat rather than bend over, keeping your chest lifted. Be sure to stay upright and bring the load close to you before attempting to lift it, cautions Coffman. But it's equally important to maintain proper form when lifting even light objects. Coffman advises using the "golfer's stance": Keep your spine straight and pivot forward from the hip. Then balance on one leg and let the other leg extend behind you, which minimizes stress on the lower back.
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Strengthen your core
Strong abs, glutes, and lats—which together make up your core—will help to protect the spine. "Strengthening the muscles that surround and protect the spine shift the compressive and strain forces away from the spine itself," Coffman explains. She recommends trying a bridge pose: Lying on your back, push with your legs and abs to bring your body into an arch, or a bridge formation, with the knees bent and abs engaged. Hold this position for 3 to 5 seconds, repeating 10 to 20 times. Another good ab exercise for a stiff back is the reverse abdominal curl. Lie on your back with your abs engaged, then pull both knees together toward the chest and lower them back down, maintaining abdominal activation throughout. "None of the exercises should be painful during or after," Coffman cautions. If anything hurts, use a smaller range of motion. Here's how to build your core without crunches.
Many people sit all day—in the car, at a desk, in the car again, on the sofa. Gentle stretching or walking breaks can help stabilize your spine and keep your muscles balanced. There's also evidence that adding a few gentle yoga stretches can help with back pain. Try child's pose, cat-cow pose, downward dog, or a gentle spine twister to help loosen up your hips, hamstrings, and low back. Here's how to recover from a day of sitting.