These Simple Habits Can Help Reduce Back Pain

Over 80% of people experience prolonged back pain at some point in their lives, reports Harvard Health. Although back pain is a major cause of work leave, only 25% to 30% of people seek treatment for it. You can reduce back pain, says Dr. Nalini Sehgal of UX Interventional Pain Medicine, but treatments work differently for everyone.

While only a doctor can treat a sore back, you can do some things to alleviate the pain. Improve your spine by changing your sleeping position, desk chair, and how you hold your phone. With these habits, you can reduce your back pain.

Pinpoint Where The Tension Is

If you’re wondering what’s causing your back pain, focus on which area of your spine hurts. Upper and middle back pain usually occurs anywhere from your neck to the bottom of your ribcage. It could be caused by muscle strain, poor posture, osteoarthritis, or a fracture, according to the University of Michigan.

A jogger stops to clutch her back in pain.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Meanwhile, lower back pain can indicate excessive sitting, sleeping oddly, stress, weight gain, and sprains, says UT Southwestern Medical Center. Determining what’s causing your back pain can help you soothe it. If your pain is chronic or has no obvious explanation, see a doctor.

Don’t Sleep On Your Stomach

According to Cleveland Clinic, sleeping on your back is the optimal position for back pain. On the flip-side, sleeping on your stomach places strain on your back. It strains your neck and abdomen, unnaturally curving your spine, according to Sleep Advisor.

A diagram shows a woman sleeping on her stomach incorrectly (above) and correctly (below).
Pinterest/The Healthy Back Institute
Pinterest/The Healthy Back Institute

That said, stomach-sleepers can get away with little to no back pain. The National Sleep Foundation recommends placing a pillow beneath your abdomen to relieve the pressure on your spine. It could also relieve some lower back pain.

Stop Waiting For The Pain To Disappear

In some cases, back pain will dissipate with time, but don’t rely on it. Pain indicates inflammation, which could require treatment, says chiropractor Suzanne Tamlyn. According to physiatrist Anand B. Joshi, back pain could stem from a strain, injury, infection, or medical condition.

A man sits in a physical therapist's office.

When should you visit a doctor? Duke Health advises people to see a doctor if your pain increases over time. If you lose strength, weight, or bowel function from back pain, see a professional. And beware of back pain resulting from physical trauma or fever.

Perform In-Chair Exercises

According to a 2018 study in JAMA, one-fourth of all Americans sit for over eight hours a day. If you have to sit for several hours from a desk job, you can relieve your back with some in-chair exercises. One is to stretch your arms back, grab the back of your chair, and arch your back, looking upward. Hold it for 20 seconds.

People practice stretching in chairs.

Here’s another chair exercise from Harvard Health. Rest your hands on your thighs, sit upright, and slowly draw your shoulders back. Squeeze the shoulders blade together and count to five; release. Repeat it three to four times.

While Sleeping, Support Your Knees

While sleeping, the position of your knees can strain your spine and create pain. The University of Rochester Medical Center recommends positioning a pillow to support your back. If you sleep on your side, for instance, place a pillow between your knees. Doing so will keep your spine in alignment.

A woman sleeps with a pillow placed between her knees.

If you sleep on your back, place a pillow underneath your knees. The pillow will relieve some pressure from your lower back and support the natural curve of your body. Your back will thank you!

Provide Lumbar Support

If the back of your chair rises straight up and down, it may be causing lower back pain. While sitting, keeping your back erect strains, tightens, and tenses the back muscles, according to Harvard Health. You can relieve some tension by giving your lower back some support.

A woman suffers from lumbar pain while sitting in a chair.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cleveland Clinic recommends using a small pillow or towel to support your lower back. First, sit upright in your chair, and notice where the curve of your back is. Then, place the towel or pillow along the curve to lend your muscles some relief.

Hold Your Phone Closer To Your Face

Believe it or not, staring at your phone frequently could create pain in your neck and upper back. The relatively new phenomenon even has a name: “text neck.” Pain specialist Dr. Robert Bolash says that looking down forces your neck and upper back muscles to strain, which leads to soreness over time.

A woman looks down at her phone.
Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“For every inch forward you hold your head, the weight carried down through the spine increases by ten pounds,” says physical therapist Dr. Karena Wu. When you can, keep your head up and lift your phone closer to your face.

Don’t Rest For Too Long

Although doctors used to prescribe bed rest for people with back pain, many no longer do. According to the Western Journal of Medicine, science shows that bed rest does not improve back pain. If anything, it delays the problem’s resolution, since physical therapy and medications commonly cure back pain.

A woman plays with her hair as she lies in bed.

If you have thrown out your back, limit your bed rest to a day or two, says Harvard Health. Muscles need to be stretched to relieve a strain if your back pain stems from a muscle injury.

Ice It If Your Back Pain Comes From An Injury

If your back pain results from muscle strain, you can ice it. The University of California, Berkeley, recommends not heating your back within the first 48 hours of the injury. While heat relaxes muscles, it does not heal swelling or inflammation, which could be causing your back pain.

A woman carries an Ice Wrap.

Wrap an ice pack in a cloth to prevent frozen burns. Apply it to your back for 15 to 20 minutes every couple of hours. Also, rest your back, but don’t rest it so long as to cause stiffness.

Heat Your Back

A heating pad can relax the muscles in your back, allowing for some relief from pain. Whether the heat comes from a shower, patch, or hot pack, apply it for only 15 to 20 minutes, says the University of Michigan. Harvard Health recommends asking your doctor if heat or cold will help your back more.

A woman holds a heating pad to her lower back.

There is some evidence that heat heals back pain more than cold does. During a 2014 study, participants felt significantly less pain after heat therapy (thermotherapy) than ice packs (cryotherapy). However, another study in BMC Trials supported a combination of thermotherapy and cryotherapy.

Stretch Away Morning Back Pain

If you wake up with back pain, you can relieve some of it by stretching or exercising in the morning. The director of Sleep to Live Institute, Dr. Robert Oexman, says that stretching can soothe back muscles and relieve the stiffness from a night’s sleep.

A young boy stretches in bed at 5:00 a.m.
William Gottlieb/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

For a quick stretch, you can lie on your back and draw your knees up to your chest. Also, you can on your stomach and lift your torso, resting on your elbows. Hold these stretches for 15 to 30 seconds.

Stop Slouching

When people slouch, the strain stresses their muscles, discs, and spinal joints. It reduces blood flow to the back and results in soreness, says Dr. Vijay Vad of Spine-Health. Over time, persistent slouching could weaken your back, which makes it harder to keep a healthy posture, creating a cycle of continuous back pain.

A woman drives her car with bad posture.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although correcting your posture feels awkward at first, it’ll become second nature with time, says physiotherapist Nick Sinfield. According to the National Health Service, you should sit with your back against the chair and your head above your shoulders.

Exercise Regularly

If you have chronic back pain, regular exercise is an important step to managing it, says Aleksander Zgierska, an associate professor of UW Health. Exercise will stretch your back, strengthen your muscles, and release endorphins that relieve pain.

A man jogs along the skyline of Brooklyn.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to a 2016 study in Healthcare, several workouts can alleviate back pain. Aerobic exercises (including running, cycling, or walking) support blood flow to your back. Stretching also soothes tension to soothe your back, but weight lifting can tense muscles and cause more pain, researchers say.

You’re Probably Lifting Objects Incorrectly

If you have to lift objects off the floor frequently, that could injure your back over time. The over-strain on your upper and middle back could pull muscles, and the result is occupational back pain, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Family & Community Medicine.

A man lifts a large box as he moves into his home.

However, researchers noted that learning the “proper” lifting technique lessens the back pain. The proper approach is to stand close to the object, widen your stance, and bend your knees. Lift with your legs, not your back, advises Princeton University.

Manage Stress First

While back pain may not be in your head, it could stem from emotions. Stress can manifest in muscle tension, which adds up to produce pain. This phenomenon is called tension myositis syndrome (TMS). Although some healthcare experts don’t accept this theory, Harvard Health agrees that stress and anxiety can worsen back pain.

A man rubs his eyes feeling stressed.

While this isn’t just “mind over matter,” reducing stress might alleviate some of your back pain. Exercising, sleeping well, and scheduling time to relax can give your back some much-needed relief.

Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

A lack of sleep can make your daily pain worse. According to a 2015 study in Sleep Medicine, insufficient sleep makes people more sensitive to pain. On the flip-side, back pain inhibits people from sleeping, says the European Spine Journal. It’s a nasty cycle of sleep deprivation, back pain, and worse sleep.

A woman sleeps with an eye mask on.
Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In older adults, poor sleep may result in chronic pain, according to research of over 4,000 participants in Arthritis & Rheumatology. People who struggle with sleep become prone to “musculoskeletal pain,” researchers say. Make sure to get between seven and nine hours of sleep!

Check Your Shoes

Shoes provide support for our feet, and this support impacts the rest of our posture. Studies support the idea that certain shoes can cause back pain. In 2015, an Indian study concluded that wearing high heels results in back soreness. During a 2017 study, participants who received shoe orthotics experienced significantly less back pain.

A close-up shows a man wearing black boots.
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

If you suspect that your shoes could be hurting your back, talk to an orthopedic specialist. Make sure to wear shoes with enough support. Research from AsociaciĆ³n RUVID revealed that rocker bottom shoes effectively reduce back pain.

Take More Breaks

Take note of physical activities that cause physical pain. If you’re jumping from gardening to the gym to grocery shopping, your back will continually remain tense and sore. “Listen to your body and learn to pace yourself,” advises back pain rehabilitation specialist Andrew Nava.

A home owner appears stressed with bills splayed all over the living room.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Mopping, using a vacuum, raking, and doing the laundry can aggravate your back depending on how you do it, according to Cleveland Clinic. Although activity is necessary for back pain, too much of it can lead to stress, tension, and lack of sleep.

Squat, Don’t Bend

What do golfing, cleaning the dishes, and laundry have in common? They all encourage people to bend over and pick things up. If you bend over continually, it could stress both the discs and soft tissues in your spinal column, says occupational therapist Michael Milicia.

A woman bends over to unload the dishwasher.
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Kinesiologist Stuart McGill recommends “hip hinging” instead of bending at your stomach. Place your feet apart with your back straight. Bend your knees and bend through your hips, pushing your bottom out. With that technique, you’ll place less strain on your lower and middle back.

Re-Design Your Desk

If you have to work at a computer for a long period, you can organize your desk in a way that relieves back pain. According to the Penn State Musculoskeletal and Rheumatology Blog, sitting at an awkwardly-arranged desk may strain your shoulders, elbows, or neck, resulting in more back pain.

Two women work at a desk in an office.
Getty Images

To start, position your screen so that you can see it at eye level–not too high or too low. Your elbows should sit at a 90-degree angle to not put pressure on your shoulders. And make sure that your chair has a supportive back, and if the back isn’t curved, provide lumbar support.