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Nonsurgical treatments for back pain

Vertebrae, disks, joints, muscles, ligaments, nerves—with so many intricate parts, it's no wonder things sometimes go awry in your back and cause pain. From sprains and strains to bulging disks, back pain is an all-too-common problem.

Though back pain usually improves in a few weeks, those few weeks can feel like an eternity. Fortunately, several methods can help you find relief.

Exercise and stretching. Careful exercise can help stabilize and support your back by strengthening muscles in the back and abdomen. In fact, exercise may be the most effective way to hasten your recovery from low-back pain, notes the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

In addition, doing gentle stretches may relieve stiffness and improve your range of motion.

It's best to talk to your doctor before exercising or stretching when you have back pain. Your doctor can recommend specific exercises based on your particular back problem. Or you may be told not to exercise at all, as some back problems may be aggravated rather than helped by the activity.

Medications. There are a variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications that may help back pain, including pain relievers to ease the ache and anti-inflammatory medications to reduce inflammation.

Heat and cold treatments. You can try applying heat or cold to the affected part of your back. Use cold compresses or ice packs for up to 20 minutes, several times a day, for the first two or three days after the injury. After that, switch to heat packs (or a hot shower, bath or heating pad) for brief periods of time.

Heat and cold treatments are not scientifically proven to work, notes the NINDS, but they might ease pain, relieve muscle spasms, lessen inflammation and make moving easier.

Braces. Some experts believe that using a corset-type brace may help you feel more comfortable and stable. Others think that using a brace leads to more back problems because the brace keeps you from using your back muscles, causing them to get weaker. Ask your doctor's advice before you buy or use a brace.

Injections. A variety of injections can be used, based on the location and source of your back pain. Examples include steroid injections to reduce inflammation and local anesthetic injections to block pain. Injections can be given in various locations in your back or spine, including into the muscle, around nerves or into a disk.

Acupuncture. This technique uses thin needles inserted at various points on the body. Acupuncture may work by stimulating the body to produce its natural pain-numbing chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin. A panel from the National Institutes of Health has concluded that acupuncture may help low-back pain when used as part of a broader treatment plan.

Work with your doctor

Occasionally, conservative treatments don't provide relief and surgery is needed. Work with your doctor to find the best treatment for your back pain.

reviewed 4/6/2016

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