There are also some specialist treatments that may be recommended if it’s thought simple measures are not likely to be effective on their own.
See a GP or a physiotherapist if your pain is not improving despite trying simple treatments.
Treatments you can try yourself
One of the most important things you can do is to keep moving and continue with your normal activities as much as possible.
It used to be thought that bed rest would help you recover from a bad back, but it’s now known that people who remain active are likely to recover quicker.
This may be difficult at first, but do not be discouraged – your pain should start to improve eventually. Consider taking painkillers if the pain is stopping you from carrying on as normal.
There’s no need to wait until you’re completely pain-free before returning to work. Going back to work will help you return to a normal pattern of activity and may distract you from the pain.
Back exercises and stretches
Simple back exercises and stretches can often help reduce back pain. These can be done at home as often as you need to.
For information about exercises and stretches that can help, see:
- back pain pilates workout video
- Versus Arthritis: exercises to manage back pain
A GP may be able to provide information about back exercises if you’re unsure what to try, or you may want to consider seeing a physiotherapist for advice. Read about how to get access to physiotherapy.
Doing regular exercise alongside these stretches can also help keep your back strong and healthy. Activities such as walking, swimming, yoga and pilates are popular choices.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) tablets, such as ibuprofen, can help relieve back pain. Many types are available to buy from pharmacies or supermarkets without a prescription.
But NSAIDs are not suitable for everyone, so check the box or leaflet to see whether you can take the medicine first. Speak to a pharmacist if you’re not sure.
If you cannot take NSAIDs, alternative medicines such as codeine may help. This is a stronger painkiller that should ideally only be used for a few days, as it can cause addiction if used for longer.
Paracetamol on its own is not recommended for back pain, but it may be used alongside stronger painkillers such as codeine.
Muscle relaxants may be prescribed by a GP if you have painful muscle spasms in your back.
Some muscle relaxants such as diazepam can make you feel drowsy, dizzy or caused blurred vision. Do not drive, cycle or operate machinery if you have these types of side effects.
Hot and cold packs
Some people find that heat (such as a hot bath or a hot water bottle placed on the affected area) helps to ease the pain when back pain first starts.
Cold (such as an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables) on the painful area can also help in the short term. However, do not put ice directly on your skin, as it might cause a cold burn. Wrap an ice pack or bag of frozen vegetables in a cloth or towel first.
Another option is to alternate between hot and cold using ice packs and a hot water bottle. Hot and cold compression packs can be bought at most pharmacies.
Relax and stay positive
Trying to relax is a crucial part of easing the pain as muscle tension caused by worrying about your condition may make things worse.
Read more about:
- 10 stress busters
- breathing exercises for stress
Although it can be difficult, it helps to stay positive and recognise that your pain should get better. People who manage to stay positive despite their pain tend to recover quicker.
A GP may suggest attending an NHS group exercise programme if they think it might help to reduce your pain.
These programmes involve classes, led by a qualified instructor, where you’re taught a mix of exercises to strengthen your muscles and improve your posture, plus aerobic and stretching exercises.
Manual therapy is the name for a group of treatments where a therapist uses their hands to move, massage and apply careful force to the muscles, bones and joints in and around your spine.
It’s usually done by chiropractors, osteopaths or physiotherapists, although chiropractic and osteopathy are not widely available on the NHS.
Manual therapy can help reduce back pain, but it should only be used alongside other measures such as exercise.
There’s also some evidence that a therapy called the Alexander technique may help with long-term back pain. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) does not currently recommend this treatment.
A GP may suggest psychological therapy, in addition to other treatments such as exercise and manual therapy.
Psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you manage your back pain better by changing how you think about your condition.
While the pain in your back is very real, how you think and feel about your condition can make it worse.
If you’ve been in pain for a long time, a specialist treatment programme that involves a combination of group therapy, exercises, relaxation, and education about pain and the psychology of pain may be offered.
Surgery and procedures
Surgery for back pain is usually only recommended if there’s a specific medical reason for your pain, such as sciatica or a slipped (prolapsed) disc, and other treatments have not helped.
A procedure called radiofrequency denervation may sometimes be used if:
- you’ve had back pain for a long time
- your pain is moderate or severe
- your pain is thought to originate from the joints in your spine
The procedure involves inserting needles into the nerves that supply the affected joints. Radio waves are sent through the needles to heat the nerves, which stops them sending pain signals.
You’re awake while the treatment is being done and local anaesthetic is used to numb your back. You will not need to stay in hospital overnight.
As with all procedures, radiofrequency denervation carries a risk of complications, including bleeding, bruising, infection and accidental nerve damage. Discuss the risks with your surgeon before agreeing to treatment.
Spinal fusion surgery
Spinal fusion surgery is another type of surgery for back pain. It may be recommended if there’s significant damage to the bones in your back (vertebrae).
Spinal fusion surgery can be used to fuse 2 vertebrae together to strengthen them. This can also help to reduce any related nerve pain as it stops the damaged vertebrae squeezing the nerves that pass through the spine.
It’s possible that this type of surgery could cause permanent damage to some of the nerves in your back. This may lead to some partial paralysis in your legs and bowel or urinary incontinence. This complication is estimated to happen in around 1 in every 200 procedures.
Treatments not recommended
A number of other treatments have sometimes been used for non-specific back pain (back pain with no identified cause) but are not recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) because of a lack of evidence.
- belts, corsets, foot orthotics and shoes with “rocker” soles
- traction – the use of weights, ropes and pulleys to apply force to tissues around the spine
- acupuncture – a treatment where fine needles are inserted at different points in the body
- therapeutic ultrasound – where sound waves are directed at your back to accelerate healing and encourage tissue repair
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – where a machine is used to deliver small electrical pulses to your back through electrodes (small sticky patches) attached to your skin
- percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (PENS) – where electrical pulses are passed along needles inserted near the nerves in the back
- interferential therapy (IFT) – where a device is used to pass an electrical current through your back to try to accelerate healing
- painkilling spinal injections (although these can help if you have sciatica)