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Treating Back Pain Flare-Ups
Don't let recurring pain get the best of you.

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Treating Back Pain Flare-Ups

It can be frustrating to think a pain has gone away, only to have it flare up again. That can happen with low back pain.

Repetitive motions such as lifting, bending or twisting may cause recurrent back pain. These actions can strain muscles, causing soreness. In some cases, recurrent back pain can be avoided by making lifestyle changes. Make sure your doctor is OK with you trying some of these changes before you're evaluated further:

  • Losing weight, if you need to
  • Strengthening weak back and stomach muscles through exercise
  • Improving your posture while standing, sitting and sleeping
  • Assessing whether your work is overly strenuous or sedentary
  • Psychological factors; are you depressed, stressed or dissatisfied with your work?
  • Quitting smoking

If you've made recommended lifestyle changes and your pain keeps coming back, it may require further analysis by your doctor. He or she will probably start with a medical history. Then be ready to answer these questions:

When did the pain begin? Where is it? How bad is it? Does it limit your movement? When did you last feel this pain?

Your doctor will likely perform a physical exam. In some cases, you may be advised to undergo imaging or laboratory tests to check for injury or disease.

If your doctor finds the underlying cause of the recurring pain, he or she will suggest treatment to target it. If not, your doctor will treat your symptoms to help reduce the pain and improve your mobility and function.

Treatment depends on the severity and source of the back pain. Often, over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen, naproxen or ibuprofen can provide relief for flare-ups. Check with your doctor to see if one of these is right for you. Your doctor may prescribe other prescription medications if over-the-counter medicines are not effective.

Steroid injections and other treatments may also be helpful for some recurring back pain. In cases of injury or damage to the cushioning discs in your spine, surgery may eventually be required.

Coping skills are another important part of managing persistent back pain. A pain specialist, psychologist or therapist can help you develop strategies for dealing with pain.

When a flare-up occurs, fall back on the self-care methods you've used before to get relief:

  1. Ice, then heat. Ice the injured area to reduce swelling. After a few days, apply heat to help relax the muscles.
  2. Sleep in a comfortable position. Try lying on your side with a pillow between your knees.
  3. Be as active as you can. Too much bed rest can actually slow your recovery. Consider low-impact exercise like walking or swimming.

If your low back pain continues or if there is significant change in your pain, or you develop new symptoms, you may need to see your doctor. He or she may recommend further evaluation or suggest treatments such as physical therapy, manipulation, acupuncture, massage or yoga.

Note: If you are physically inactive or you have a health condition such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, pregnancy or other symptoms, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program or increasing your activity level. He or she can tell you what types and amounts of activities are safe.
By Ginny Greene, Editor
Created on 12/10/2009
Updated on 10/08/2014
Sources:
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low back pain fact sheet.
  • UpToDate. Patient information: Low back pain in adults (beyond the basics).
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Low back pain.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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