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An Action Plan for Back Pain

A shooting pain after lifting a heavy box. The dull ache from sitting too long in front of a computer. Stiffness due to disc disease.

Back pain can be as varied as the sources that cause it. But what do you do when back pain occurs? How do you deal with the pain and when does it warrant a trip to the doctor?

First Things First: Signs to Watch For

There are some symptoms associated with back pain that require a doctor’s evaluation right away. Call your doctor if:

  • You have fever, chills, vomiting, or stomach pain

  • You have trouble going to the bathroom

  • You feel pain down your leg below your knee

  • You feel numbness in your leg, foot, groin, or rectum

  • Your pain was caused by an injury

  • Your pain is intense and you can’t move around

How to Practice Good Self Care

In most cases, though, it’s not necessary to see a doctor for back pain. Why? Back pain usually goes away in a few days with no treatment at all. But good self-care techniques can help ease the pain until it does. If you develop back pain, try these tips:

  • Use ice packs to help reduce inflammation and numb deep pain. You can also use heating pads for 20 to 30 minutes at a time to help stop muscle spasms. 

  • Bed rest is not recommended for back pain and should be limited. Try to start doing stretching exercises and resume normal activity as soon as possible. Staying in bed too long can actually make pain worse.

  • With your doctor’s approval, take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen. This can temporarily reduce pain and inflammation.

If the pain doesn’t get noticeably better within a few days, call your doctor.

When You Need Treatment

Back pain is classified into three groups: acute, subacute, and chronic. Acute pain goes away within four weeks. Subacute pain lasts for one to three months. Chronic pain lasts for more than three months. It may be caused by a degenerative disease, like arthritis, but also can stem from injuries, like sprains and fractures. 

Acute back pain usually gets better on its own. But if your pain persists, talk with your primary care provider. Most primary doctors are experienced in treating back pain. They can also refer you to other doctors and specialists if necessary. Other health care professionals you may be referred to include: 

  • Chiropractors are doctors who manipulate or “adjust” the spinal column and nearby tissues with their hands in order to restore back mobility.

  • Physical therapists focus on restoring function, relieving pain, and preventing injury through exercises and other therapies.

  • Anesthesiologists can diagnose and treat acute and chronic pain. They may practice in a variety of settings, including pain management clinics or spine centers. 

  • Surgeons, specifically orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons, do most types of spinal surgeries. Surgery is an option for some patients when less invasive treatment options fail to relieve pain.


© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.