What to do when your back goes out

Humans are one of the few species whose spine aligns vertically instead of horizontally. That, combined with too much sitting, stress and other hazards of daily life, may explain why back problems are so common.

Your back is a complicated structure made up of bones, cartilage, muscle, ligaments and nerves. A problem with any of these can cause acute back pain. Often, it's not clear what the real cause of back pain is, even if you have tests, like X-rays or MRI scans. The good news is, most back problems go away with basic care that you can manage on your own.

The next time you experience sudden, sharp back pain, follow these tips.

back pain infographic

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The first hour
Sudden back pain is often caused by muscle sprains, stress or both. Stay upright and walk or stretch. To tolerate pain, it helps to take deep breaths. Remember that back pain is very common -- most of the time, the pain is temporary. Unless you have a medical reason not to, taking an over-the-counter pain medicine, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be helpful.

The first day
Don’t be a couch potato. Stay active within reason. Gentle activity, like walking, keeps the nerves calm, helps the muscles relax and promotes blood circulation to the painful area.

The first week
As the pain subsides, increase your activity gradually. Activities like walking, yoga or pool exercises are especially helpful for back pain.

If you sit a lot at work, stand up and move around for two or three minutes every half-hour. Get an ergonomic evaluation of your work station, if possible.

The first month
Don’t overdo it, but start exercising. Mild aerobic exercise, like walking, riding a stationary bike or pool exercises, are helpful when done regularly. Work on strengthening your core, including your abdominal and back muscles. This will reduce your pain and help to prevent a recurrence.

Take inventory of any stressors in your life, such as work or family stress, insomnia, anxiety or depression. If issues like these are affecting you, it’s important for your health to come up with a plan and overcome them.

Most people with sudden back pain feel better within a few days to weeks and are totally recovered within a few months.

When to see a doctor
See your doctor if the pain is more than you can handle on your own, or if it limits your ability to move. You should also see a doctor if you experience weakness, numbness or any changes in bowel or bladder function. In some cases, it may be helpful to get physical therapy, chiropractor care or help managing stress.


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