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House Call: Home remedies help treat back pain

If you have back pain, you are not alone. It is one of the most common reasons that people visit their doctor.

Most acute back pain is caused by an injury – lifting something that is too heavy, a mishap while participating in a sporting event or just stepping off of a curb the wrong way.

Because the muscles in our backs are so large and we use them all of the time, back problems can be quite painful, persistent and affect our nearly every move.

When your back is hurting, it may seem like bed rest is the right treatment. But it is generally a bad idea for most types of back pain. Returning to normal activities and work (so long as they do not put additional strain on your back) is usually the best approach.

For most back pain, home treatment is usually adequate. However, if one or both of your legs become weak or numb, the pain goes from your back to your foot, you lose control of your bowels or bladder, you develop a fever or you have bouts of back pain that are becoming more frequent or lasting longer, you do need to see a health care provider.

If you are sure your back pain is the result of an acute injury (such as a fall, a sprain or a strain) or overuse injury (as in, you spent the weekend helping your friend move or playing softball when you have not played in months), the following home treatments can ease your discomfort and aid in the healing process:

• Cold packs applied to the back for the first 48 to 72 hours can reduce swelling and discomfort.

• Nonprescription medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen can ease pain and reduce inflammation. Take ibuprofen or naproxen with food to prevent stomach irritation and do not take these two medications together.

• Sleeping on your back with a large pillow under your knees or on your side with your knees bent and a pillow between your knees to ease discomfort at night.

• About 72 hours after your injury, warm packs, a heating pad set on low or hot soaks may help ease muscle spasms. You can alternate heat and cold after the initial period of cold only.

Every person and every injury is different, but typically, back pain from an acute injury will go away after about six weeks. Pain from and overuse injury will usually be gone within four weeks provided the overuse discontinues. Sometimes back pain from overuse comes on gradually, so it can be difficult to identify the cause. If it improves while on vacation or some other break from usual daily activities, something you do repeatedly at home or at work could be the source of your pain.

Following any back injury, begin gentle exercise as soon as you can. Walking, water exercise, swimming and yoga can usually be done without aggravating back problems.

If your back problems do not improve or become worse with home treatment, see your health care provider to discuss possible sources of your back pain and what treatment options you can consider. Physical therapy, medications and other noninvasive choices are usually the first step. Massage, chiropractic treatment and acupuncture can improve many back problems. Imaging such as an X-ray, CT scan or MRI may be recommended if you have concerning symptoms.

If you learn how to lift objects safely, maintain good posture, manage stress, keep a healthy weight and exercise regularly, you may recover faster from future back injuries.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section.