First aid for low back pain

Picture of two resting positions for people who have low back pain

When you first feel back pain, try these steps to avoid or reduce pain:

  • Relax. Find a comfortable position for rest. Some people are comfortable on the floor or a medium-firm bed with a small pillow under their head and another under their knees. Some people prefer to lie on their side with a pillow between their knees. Don't stay in one position for too long.
  • Walk. Take a short walk (10 to 20 minutes) on a level surface (no slopes, hills, or stairs) every 2 to 3 hours. Walk only distances you can manage without pain, especially leg pain.
  • Take pain medicine if needed, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or medicines that reduce pain, swelling, and irritation, including ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) or naproxen (such as Aleve or Naprosyn). These medicines usually work best if you take them on a regular schedule instead of waiting until the pain is severe.
  • Try heat or ice. Try using a heating pad on a low or medium setting for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours. Try a warm shower in place of one session with the heating pad. Or you can buy single-use heat wraps that last up to 8 hours. You can also try an ice pack for 10 to 15 minutes every 2 to 3 hours. You can use an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a thin towel. There is not strong evidence that either heat or ice will help, but you can try them to see if they help. You may also want to try switching between heat and cold.

Last Updated: February 3, 2010

Author: Shannon Erstad, MBA/MPH

Medical Review: William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine & Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics

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