First aid for acute back pain

If you are reading this, then I suspect you have a good reason to be doing so – and hard luck. Acute back pain is no joke.

Back pain, particularly the sudden onset type – you know, the one you get from bending over to pull on your boot or picking up your child’s toy, can be really intense.  At times, it can be strong enough to make you pass-out.  The feeling is hard to describe even though most of us have had it (me included). It may be a twinge that causes tenderness and discomfort. It might be so intense that it hurts to make even the slightest movement. It can be concentrated in a specific area or spread out. You might feel ache, numbness and tingling in your bottom and legs.

You are probably wondering what to do about it.  Research has shown that you should try to keep mobile as possible, so don’t take to your bed for days and days. However, if the pain is horrible then do listen to your body and we’d suggest that any position that is pain-free is essentially a good one.

Step 1 – apply iceIce for low-back pain

This is the most important 1st aid trick you can use to treat acute back pain.  Apply an ice pack or crushed ice in a freezer bag or even frozen peas to the injury.  This will use physics to reduce reduce the inflammation around the injury and not chemistry.  (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) have some significant problems associated with their use).  Don’t apply the ice for too long (if you want the precise timings they are 20 minutes on, then 20 minutes off, and then 20 minutes on and repeat as often as you can).  Don’t put the ice directly on your skin, as you may give yourself an ice burn if you do.  Put something as thin as a handkerchief between you and the ice.

Research shows that in the acute phase of your injury if you heat the problem up you can make the problem last 5 times as long – so, please, avoid the hot-water bottle until we tell you to use it!

If you can, get professional advice on applying ice.

Top tip

If you haven’t got an ice pack use a plastic bag of crushed ice or even frozen vegetables instead – peas or sweet corn are our favorites as they can be molded to fit the back, neck or knee or anywhere else.  The same rules apply about time and using a cloth between the ice and your skin.  You can also use a trick of applying a warm cloth before you put the ice on.  This makes the whole experience less shocking as the cloth will rapidly cool as the ice starts to work.

Step 2 – medication for acute back pain

Painkillers are drugs and should be avoided if you can and may often serve only to ‘remove the warning bulb from the dashboard’ rather than solve the problem.  They should not be a long-term solution to acute back pain for most people.  Side effects are common and significant, particularly for the stomach and intestinal organs with NSAIDs.  However, if you really need them then take them as recommended on the packet – but never more than the recommended dose. Read the instructions to make sure the tablets are suitable for you or ask your pharmacist for advice.  If you still need painkillers after a week or so, you should consult your doctor.


Other things you should try:


Muscle tension or spasm can be very painful.. However, it is often your body’s way of protecting the spine as the muscles are acting like a splint or scaffolding to stop you injuring yourself even more.  So, don’t go overboard on relaxing these muscles as this may allow your back to move more than your body really wants and you may cause more injury.  Massage and hot baths act like kicking scaffolding away from a building before it’s completed.  This can lead to collapse and in your case extending the injury time.  As soon as your body is ready it’ll reduce the muscle spasm under control and then you can come and see our sports injury expert for some treatment.

Bed rest or exercise?

Doctors used to recommend long periods of rest for people with backache.  But research now shows that bed rest is bad for backs.  Even crawling around on your hands and knees is better than no movement at all.  Some kinds of exercise, such as walking, doesn’t put too much stress on your back.  It’s a good idea to make a start on them even if your back is a bit sore – just to get your joints moving and your heart and lungs working.

And, think again

If you’re stuck in bed for a day or two, use the time to consider your lifestyle, and think of ways you might avoid the back problem in future.  When you are eventually up, book to see us at C1 to find out what is causing your back problem.  Then act on our advice as we are usually right!