How To: Deal with a Stiff, Achy Back?

Deal with a Stiff, Achy Back?

We've all been there; waking up in the morning with a stiff, achy back. Maybe you overdid the yard work this weekend. Perhaps you were a bit too enthusiastic on the Nautilus circuit. Could be the long hours spent hunched over your computer are catching up with you. Perhaps your back pain is indicative of something more serious. Unfortunately, unless you've really injured your spine, your doctor isn't going to be much help; the best he can do is offer you pain medications and tell you to rest for a week. While a week of bed rest sounds like heaven, the reality of living is nobody has time to take a week off, either from work or from life. The good news is once you've learned how to treat your pain, you can prevent it from coming back. There is always the possibility your back pain is indicative of a more serious condition. The rule of thumb is if your pain persists in spite of appropriate therapy, schedule a visit with your doctor.

The Best Defense

The best defense is a good offense; be proactive and you may prevent a backache from occurring. Maintaining a proper posture, stretching, learning to lift with your legs and not your back are all things we can do to prevent a backache from happening. Exercising properly prevents strains and injuries to your spine and back as well. Be conscious of your body, and take proper precautions - it will save you agony down the road.

Dealing with the Problem

OK, your prevention program slipped up, or you just got careless, and now you have a stiff, achy back. What do you do to treat the condition?


Sounds like a no-brainer but people with back pain try to continue with their normal schedules in spite of the pain. Taking a few days to rest is the first step to treating your back.


Whether you follow an allopathic medical model or an alternative one, get a pain reliever. Use of a pain reliever is a short-term thing; if you use allopathic prescription meds, it's easy to get hooked on them and then you've added an addiction to your other woes. Allopathic prescription pain medications should last no longer than two weeks without seeing your practitioner again. If the other therapies have not brought relief, your doctor may need to dig a little deeper into what's causing your pain. Alternative pain relievers are not addictive, but if you use them for longer than two weeks you still need to see your doctor again. There is always that possibility your back pain is the harbinger of more serious things to come and you shouldn't ignore it.

Moist Heat

Using moist heat on an aching back provides several things; it reduces your pain, it eases your muscles, and it provides comfort to the sufferer. There are moist heating pads on the market; the best one is a Thermophore. Massage therapists use these heating pads at the end of a session to help relax the back muscles. The pads are heavier than a conventional heating pad, and this gives the pad stability, so it stays where it's put.

Cold Packs

Sounds counterintuitive, but ice is often just what the doctor ordered for a strained back. The cold reduces swelling and inflammation, allowing healing to start faster. Use the cold pack if you have definitely injured a muscle in your back, and after a few days switch to the moist heat. The heat will relax the muscles after the cold has taken away the swelling and inflammation.

Topical Analgesics

Most of our mothers kept Ben-Gay or Icy Hot in the house, to cope with sprains and strains. While there is nothing wrong with these choices, they both have one drawback - they have a distinctive odor, and therefore you only use them at night. There are allopathic topical on the market without odor, and they contain capsaicin. Capsaicin is the heat in your jalapeno pepper; it's also a very effective pain medication when applied externally. Aspercreme is a good allopathic topical and you can use it anytime, anywhere.


This one also seems counterintuitive, but exercising your sore, stiff back will get you well faster than just lying around. While you need rest at the beginning, as your treatments begin to take effect, exercise needs to enter the picture. Gently stretching the affected muscles will help them heal faster, at least as long as you don't go overboard. Try some Yoga or Tai Chi; these disciplines emphasize gentle stretches and movements - just the ticket.

As long as you haven't seriously injured your back, these therapies will help you heal faster and prevent future incidences from happening. If you have seriously injured your back, you're in for a long, hard haul, with surgery a real possibility. If your therapies haven't helped your pain and stiffness within two weeks, see your doctor; you may have seriously injured your back, or your back pain could be indicating another serious condition exists. Even if your doctor tells you there's nothing wrong and to keep doing what you were doing, it's better to hear that than to miss something potentially catastrophic.


Bennett RM. Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 282.

Back Pain (31 August 2013) Retrieved from Consumer Health Digest

Brinker MR, O'Connor DP, Almekinders LC, et al. Physiology of injury to musculoskeletal structures: 1. Muscle and tendon injury. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 1, section A.

Hagen K, Hilde G, Jamtvedt G, Winnem M (2004). "Bed rest for acute low-back pain and sciatica". Cochrane Database Syst Rev (4): CD001254. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD001254.pub2. PMID 15495012;jsessionid=6C9B0D2516EB1B4D78970D9BE31E14FB.f01t03

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