Conservative Management

How Is Back Pain Treated?

Treatment for back pain depends on what kind of pain you have. Acute back pain usually gets better without any treatment, but you may want to take acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen to help ease the pain. Exercise and surgery are not usually used to treat acute back pain.

Following are some types of treatments for chronic back pain.

Hot or Cold Packs (or Both)
Hot or cold packs can soothe sore, stiff backs. Heat reduces muscle spasms and pain. Cold helps reduce swelling and numbs deep pain. Using hot or cold packs may relieve pain, but this treatment does not fix the cause of chronic back pain.

Exercise
Proper exercise can help ease chronic pain but should not be used for acute back pain. Your doctor or physical therapist can tell you the best types of exercise to do.

Medications
The following are the main types of medications used for back pain:

  • Analgesic medications are over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen and aspirin or prescription pain medications.
  • Topical analgesics are creams, ointments, and salves rubbed onto the skin over the site of pain.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are drugs that reduce both pain and swelling. NSAIDs include over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen, ketoprofen, and naproxen sodium. Your doctor may prescribe stronger NSAIDs.
  • Muscle relaxants and some antidepressants may be prescribed for some types of chronic back pain, but these do not work for every type of back pain.

Behavior Changes
You can learn to lift, push, and pull with less stress on your back. Changing how you exercise, relax, and sleep can help lessen back pain. Eating a healthy diet and not smoking also help.

Injections
Your doctor may suggest steroid or numbing shots to lessen your pain.

Complementary and Alternative Medical Treatments

When back pain becomes chronic or when other treatments do not relieve it, some people try complementary and alternative treatments. The most common of these treatments are:

  • Manipulation. Professionals use their hands to adjust or massage the spine or nearby tissues.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). A small box over the painful area sends mild electrical pulses to nerves. Studies have shown that TENS treatments are not always effective for reducing pain.

Surgery
Most people with chronic back pain do not need surgery. It is usually used for chronic back pain if other treatments do not work. You may need surgery if you have:

  • Herniated disk. When one or more of the disks that cushion the bones of the spine are damaged, the jelly-like center of the disk leaks, causing pain.
  • Spinal stenosis. This condition causes the spinal canal to become narrow.
  • Spondylolisthesis. This occurs when one or more bones of the spine slip out of place.
  • Vertebral fractures. A fracture can be caused by a blow to the spine or by crumbling of the bone due to osteoporosis.
  • Degenerative disk disease. As people age, some have disks that break down and cause severe pain.

Rarely, when back pain is caused by a tumor, an infection, or a nerve root problem called cauda equina syndrome, surgery is needed right away to ease the pain and prevent more problems.

What Kind of Research Is Being Done?

Highlights of recent research include:

  • Cost and effectiveness comparisons of surgical versus nonsurgical treatments for various types of back pain
  • Factors that go into patients’ decisions about whether or not to have surgery for herniated disks
  • National statistics on back pain costs
  • Socioeconomic factors that relate to back pain costs and treatment.

Goals of current research are to:

  • Understand the many factors that can cause back pain
  • Identify ways to prevent back pain
  • Improve surgical and nonsurgical treatments for back pain
  • Prevent disability in people who suffer from back pain