Last updated: May 16, 2008

Back pain can send sufferers crawling to the nearest couch or bed, but it's better to attack the pain with over-the-counter medications and limited exercise.



"In the past we used to tell patients with back pain to stay at strict bed rest," says Jeffrey Goldstein, MD, Director of the Spine Service at the New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases. "We know now that staying in strict bed rest can actually exacerbate pain, so we essentially tell patients to take it easy and move as much as tolerated."

Turns out your back needs exercise to heal. "The disks in your spine don't have much blood supply or neural supply," says Joel Press, MD, medical director of the Spine and Sports Rehabilitation Centers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "Instead they get their nutrition from movement. Fluid squishes in and squishes out—if you don't have movement the disks in your back don't get the nutrition they need to be healthy."

Exercise can include careful stretching, mild activity such as walking, and, as the pain improves, progressive stretching routines such as yoga (strengthening muscles helps relieve stress on the spine). Relaxation techniques are also helpful, teaching you how to systematically relax each muscle in the body. Stress, which can tighten muscles, is probably a cause of some low back pain.

"I see a correlation with stress," says Jane Jones, 56, of Overland Park, Kansas. "When I'm going through a busy time at work or a stressful time with family, my back hurts." Stress relief techniques, including exercise, can help with prevention as well as treatment.