An estimated 16 million adults experience chronic back pain, limiting their ability to enjoy everyday activities, according to Georgetown University's Health Policy Institute. Many things can cause back pain, including sports injuries, aging and arthritis. But when your back hurts, your primary concern is likely getting relief.
If you are experiencing back pain that hasn't resolved almost completely within a week, seek medical help ASAP, says Jason Smith, MD, the physical medicine and rehabilitation chair at Morristown Medical Center. "Swift action can usually produce swift results," Dr. Smith says. "While there is no way to prevent back pain completely, there are ways to help prevent its frequency and intensity." In fact, one of the biggest mistakes he sees from patients is waiting too long to seek help, hoping that the pain will go away.
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Your doctor (or physical therapist) may recommend one or several products that can offer short-term relief from back pain. Here's what you need to know.
How We Chose
We talked with several doctors who work with adults with back pain to understand better what matters in a product, how to tell if it's working and how to set reasonable expectations regarding effectiveness and relief. Our criteria when selecting products included:
- Appropriateness of the product
- Ease of use
1. Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers
When it comes to easing aches and pains, not all medications you find at the pharmacy are created equally.
Generally speaking, over-the-counter pain medication can provide pain relief or anti-inflammatory benefits, according to Laura Purdy, MD, MBA. For instance, acetaminophen (Tylenol) diminishes the sensation of pain, Dr. Purdy says. A non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSDAID) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) and aspirin decreases the inflammation in the muscles that can cause pain.
"If someone has a lot of pain, they can try Tylenol and ibuprofen together, or they can alternate them because the medications have two completely different mechanisms of action, so they are safe to take together," Dr. Purdy says.
Watch Your Dose
When taking OTC pain medication, it’s essential to make sure that you are taking a strong enough dosage, which is a common mistake as most patients don’t take enough, Dr. Smith says. “For ibuprofen, it’s normally 600 to 800 mg (three to four tablets) every 8 hours, and for Aleve/Tylenol, it’s usually 440 mg (two OTC pills),” he says.
That said, read labels and instructions on pain relievers carefully and be sure you do not take more than the recommended dosage. With Tylenol, for instance, the total dose should not exceed 4,000 mg a day, per the Mayo Clinic.
Recommended OTC Pain Relievers
2. Over-the-Counter Topical Medications
Topical pain meds can be a good source of pain relief since they provide a competitive sensation to the brain, Dr. Purdy says. In other words: as the gel or cream seeps into your skin, it can distract your brain from sensing pain. Some topical meds may numb your skin or provide a sensation of heat or cold, per the Mayo Clinic.
These topical applications carry few risks, but their results aren't long-lasting. Usually, you'll have relief for up to an hour, so it's a fine solution right after an injury, but not sustainable for long-term relief.
One of the most common causes of back pain in adults is musculoskeletal. OTC topical products that help deliver heat or ice can help there — just time them correctly.
"Ice is better immediately after an injury, within the first three to four days when the inflammation process is at its height. Ice can serve as a damage control mechanism to prevent the injury from worsening," Dr. Purdy says. Then, after the first few days, heat can be better because it allows the muscle that will go into spasm when injured to relax and stimulate good blood flow there.
"I also tell patients that if one feels better than the other, then use it," Dr. Purdy says. "Everybody is different, and so everyone will respond differently."
Recommended OTC Topical Medications
3. Posture Trainers
As their name suggests, these devices help ease tension and pressure discomfort caused by musculoskeletal back issues. In short, Dr. Purdy says posture trainers work to put your shoulders, your neck and the mid to upper back into a position that mimics how the back was designed: straight. "In doing so, it takes the excess strain off of the muscles and allows them to regain their intended length and position," she says.
While great, consider posture trainers a short-term solution, Dr. Purdy says. The best approach with this type of back condition is continuous physical therapy to retrain your muscles and improve posture. (Or try these exercises to ease lower back pain.)
Look for a posture trainer that encourages you to use your own strength to sit correctly, she says — you don't want it to be uncomfortable. A good way to envision a posture trainer is portable, continuous physical therapy that nudges you into the right position. Generally speaking, they are all wearable, with various degrees of discreteness.
Recommended Posture Correctors
4. Ergonomic Desk Chairs
Since most adults spend ample hours in front of a computer screen, it's no surprise many report sore back. In a standard office chair, it's easy to slump, sit cross-legged or put pressure on your back. (If you're working from your bed or couch, it's even harder on your back.)
If your back has inadequate support, it can start to lose some of the spine's natural curvature, throwing the rest of the back structure out of alignment and then creating musculoskeletal back pain, Dr. Purdy says. "Muscles can get spasm, or they can be weak, and both of these can be uncomfortable," she says.
What can help significantly is a desk chair that encourages proper alignment.
Look for an ergonomic desk chair that fits your body and is the right height; you'll also want a chair that comfortably accommodates you based on your height and the height of your desk, Dr. Purdy says. "Ergonomic desk chairs may have a better role in preventing rather than treating back pain, and they can also be a part of a good maintenance regimen," Dr. Purdy says.
Recommended Ergonomic Chairs
What to Look for in Back Pain Relief Products
What works for your best friend's back pain might not be what helps ease your discomfort.
Speak with a physician about what type of back pain relief product is best for your unique needs. For example, a topical patch will not cut it for pain control if someone has sciatic-like symptoms, Dr. Smith says. Topical patches are usually for surface-like symptoms, such as a simple muscle spasm.
While medication like ibuprofen is usually a mainstay for patients with back pain, it's not a safe choice for everyone, Dr. Smith notes. For example, if you have a history of bleeding GI ulcers or are already on a blood-thinning medication, you may need to avoid ibuprofen.
Along with interactions, watch how much you're taking. Always check with your doctor before beginning a new medication so that you can avoid interactions.
Ease of Use
If you are already on several medications, adding a pill that must be taken several times a day might feel like a nuisance or potentially lead to taking it incorrectly. If that's the case, check in with your health care provider to see if there's a substitute. For instance, instead of taking naproxen, which has to be taken three times a day, your doctor may be able to prescribe meloxicam, which can be once-a-day dosing, Dr. Smith says.
Ease of use matters with any product on this list. If applying (or smelling) topical solutions is unpleasant, skip them or look for an alternative.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.