There are many self-care things you can do to help both your back and your neck. Many people find that the greatest benefits come from combining medical options (such as back pain medications, injections, spine surgery, etc.) along with alternative healthcare options, exercise like yoga and Pilates, and other practical health tips.
With that in mind, this is an A to Z guide of methods you might consider with your treatment plan.
Acupuncture. In 1998, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a statement that said there is enough evidence to demonstrate that acupuncture had beneficial pain-relieving qualities that might be useful as a treatment for lower back pain and for a number of other painful conditions. The mechanisms of acupuncture, though not solidly proven, seem to stimulate the central nervous system - the brain and spinal cord - and it is thought that acupuncture causes specific chemicals to be released into the body that physically and psychologically affect pain.
Begin to exercise without acute pain. When you're in a lot of pain, the thought of active rehabilitation and exercise can be pretty daunting. One or a combination of the following passive pain-relieving techniques (modalities) may be used: Electrical stimulation (e.g. TENS units); Ice and/or heat; ultrasound; massage therapy. Medications, injections, manual manipulation, or other treatments may also be needed to sufficiently reduce your pain. All of the above therapies are designed with one goal in mind: to provide enough pain relief to help you progress to an active exercise program.
Chiropractic care. Chiropractors are concerned with whole body health. Many in the profession also teach exercises to their patients and offer nutrition advice in addition to chiropractic treatments.
See also Chiropractic treatments for back pain.
Deal with depression too. People suffering from chronic pain are four times more likely to suffer from clinical depression than healthy individuals. And the greater the pain, the more likely it is that the person will develop depression. The normal response is a combination of fear, anxiety, irritability, anger, and eventually depression.
See also Depression and chronic back pain.
Exercise + physical therapy. The use of some type of physical therapy and exercise is integral to almost all forms of back pain and neck pain treatment. Sometimes physical therapy and exercise are the first lines of treatment, other times it may help manage chronic pain, or provide rehabilitation after surgery. But did you know that both gentle back exercise and physical therapy play a vital role in relieving pain?
Exercise provides the double-benefit of helping your back heal more quickly and helping prevent a recurrence of the back pain. A focused exercise program is a critical part of almost any back pain treatment, and should include a combination of stretching, strengthening and low-impact aerobic exercise. Exercise is important to continue even after you feel better to prevent future bouts of back pain.
Please remember that it is always advisable to check with your physician prior to beginning any exercise program.
Whether used alone or in combination with other treatments, physical therapy and exercise are essential to help reduce and manage your pain, as well as to sustain your long-term recovery and prevent a future recurrence of pain. Hopefully, this will help you find and maintain a physical therapy program that works for you.
See also Exercise and back pain.
Finding the right team. Depending on your condition, you may need a healthcare professional to help you develop an appropriate list of activities to engage in and to avoid, as well as to develop and instruct you on an appropriate exercise program. Several different types of health professionals may provide physical therapy, including physical therapists, many chiropractors, and physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians (physiatrists).
See also Specialists who treat back pain.
Get others in your camp. Since the common belief for healing back problems is to rest, many of your friends or family may encourage you to rest if the exercise is causing you to struggle. By explaining ahead of time, they can understand how active rehabilitation is best for managing your condition. If you want support or help, you can also ask them to join you or encourage you during your exercises.
See also The Spine-health Community Forum.
Heat therapy. While the overall qualities of warmth and heat have long been associated with comfort and relaxation, heat therapy goes a step further and can provide both pain relief and healing benefits for many types of lower back pain. In addition, heat therapy - such as heating pads, heat wraps, hot baths, warm gel packs, etc. - is both inexpensive and easy to do. Some patients find more pain relief with heat (either moist heat or dry heat) and others with ice. The two therapies may also be alternated.
Ice. Even with all the high tech medical options available, a simple ice application can still be one of the more effective, proven methods to treat a sore back or neck. Ice is typically most effective if it is applied soon after an injury occurs, or after any activity that causes pain or stiffness. Ice can also be very helpful in alleviating postoperative pain and discomfort. While any form of applying cold to the injured area - such as a bag of ice wrapped in a towel or a commercial ice pack - should be helpful, combining massage therapy with ice application is a nice alternative for pain relief.
See also Ice massage therapy for pain relief.
Joint health. Lifestyle changes in daily activities such as shortening or eliminating a long daily commute and adding frequent rest breaks can help maintain healthy joints.
See also Treatment options for facet joint pain.
Keep posture in mind. It's easy to forget about posture when you're on the go, on the phone, or doing other everyday activities. But these times are as important as any other for heightening your awareness of good posture and recognizing when certain postures and back pain episodes coincide.
See also Guidelines to improve posture.
Learn the McKenzie Method. The long-term goal of the McKenzie Method is to teach patients how to treat themselves and manage their own neck and/or back pain for life using exercise and other strategies.
Massage therapy. Research shows that massage therapy provides several important health benefits for people with back pain, including: helping sore back muscles heal by improving blood circulation, relaxing the muscles and improving range of motion, and helping manage chronic pain by increasing the level of endorphins in the body. Neuromuscular therapy is recognized by The American Academy of Pain Management as an effective treatment for back pain caused by soft tissue injury (such as muscle strain).
See also Massage therapy for lower back pain.
Nutrition and diet. What may surprise people with back problems is that diet, nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight also play a major role in the preventing many back problems and healing from injuries.
See also Nutrition and diet tips.
Osteoporosis prevention. A bone density test often involves the use of a quick and painless, dual energy X-ray absorption (DEXA) scan that can determine if a person has normal bone density, low bone mass, osteopenia (a precursor to osteoporosis) or osteoporosis. BMD testing is already recommended every 1-2 years for all women over 65, and for postmenopausal women under 65 and other patients with multiple osteoporosis risk factors.
See also Definitive guide to osteoporosis.
Pilates. Pilates is an exercise program that focuses on the core postural muscles that are essential to providing support for the spine and helping alleviate back pain. Learning awareness of neutral alignment of the spine and strengthening the deep postural muscles that support this alignment are important skills for the back pain patient. Patients with pain stemming from excessive movement and degeneration of the intervertebral discs and joints (e.g. degenerative disc disease) are particularly likely to benefit from a Pilates exercise program.
Quit smoking. People who smoke are more likely to have lower back pain and over 80% are more likely to develop degenerative disc disease than non-smokers.
Read more at Does smoking cause low back pain?
Rest well. While you're sleeping, all of the structures in your spine that have worked hard all day finally have an opportunity to relax and be rejuvenated. Using the right mattress and pillow will support the spine so the muscles and ligaments can be stress-free and have a chance to become refreshed. A large part of the decision of what type of mattress and pillow to use is based on personal preference. As long as the basis for the choice includes ensuring that the correct support and sleeping position will be attained, any of the many available types of mattress can be helpful.
Stretch your hamstrings. If you have tight hamstring muscles (the large muscles in the back of your thighs), the motion in your pelvis may be limited, which can increase stress across your lower back. To decrease this stress it is a good idea to incorporate hamstring stretching exercises into your daily routine. Hamstring stretching should typically include applying even pressure to lengthen the hamstring muscle for 30 to 45 seconds at a time, one to two times each day. There are a number of different ways to stretch your hamstrings, and if you have a back condition you may want to check with your doctor or physical therapist to discuss which position will work best for you.
Tai Chi. Unlike other forms of exercise such as yoga, Tai Chi involves a greater degree of movement. And unlike many types of aerobic exercise (such as running) Tai Chi does not involve any jarring motions that create impact on the spine. It is a slow, deliberate, and gentle flowing movement of the body. Importantly, because Tai Chi is gentle on the spine, many people with back pain find it easier to tolerate than many other forms of exercise.
See also Tai Chi for posture and back pain.
Use medications to relieve pain. Multiple over-the-counter (non-prescription) and prescription medications can be helpful in relieving pain and addressing related symptoms while an episode of low back pain is getting better. Careful attention to pain management is a critical component of a patient’s recovery.
See also Medications for back pain and neck pain.
Vitamin C. Vitamin C can be found in fruits, such as strawberries, kiwi fruit and citrus fruits (e.g. oranges, guavas, grapefruits) and tomatoes; many vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, red and green peppers, sweet potatoes and white potatoes.
Water therapy. Exercises that would normally be too painful to do on land, such as walking, often become tolerable to do in the water. Not only does the water provide the therapeutic effect of relieving pain, it helps get you ready for more extensive exercise.
See also Water therapy exercise program.
X-Ray, MRI, CT Scans: Get an accurate clinical diagnosis. A clinical diagnosis should rule out the possibility of rare but serious conditions (such as a tumor), categorize your condition, and determine if there are neurological deficits (nerve damage). It is based on a combination of the doctor's findings on your diagnostic tests, your physical exam and symptoms, and is essential to determine appropriate treatment options for your back pain or neck pain. Getting an accurate back pain diagnosis. To help you understand your diagnosis, it may be useful to read What's a herniated disc, pinched nerve, degenerative disc disease...?
Yoga. Most people know that yoga involves a lot of stretching. But what they don't know is how important regular stretching is to alleviate many forms of lower back pain. For example, stretching the hamstring muscles (in the back of the thigh) helps expand the motion in the pelvis, which decreases stress across the lower back. Stretching with yoga also increases blood flow, allowing nutrients to flow in, toxins to flow out, and providing overall nourishment of the muscles and soft tissues in the lower back.
See also Healing benefits of yoga.
Zyban. Zyban is one medication available to help quit smoking.
See also Anti-smoking medications.
Finally, try to be patient, as treating back pain is often more an art than a science and it may take a while to find the most helpful treatment or combination of treatments.