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February 2024

An Action Plan for Back Pain

A shooting pain after lifting a heavy box. The dull ache from sitting too long in front of a computer. Stiffness when you wake up in the morning.

Back pain can be as varied as the sources that cause it. But what do you do when back pain occurs? How do you deal with the pain—and when does it warrant a trip to a healthcare provider?

First things first: signs to watch for

There are some symptoms associated with back pain that require a healthcare provider’s evaluation right away. Call your provider if:

  • You have fever, chills, vomiting, or stomach pain

  • You have trouble going to the bathroom

  • You feel pain down your leg below your knee

  • You feel numbness in your leg, foot, groin, or rectum

  • Your pain was caused by an injury

  • Your pain is intense and you can’t move around

How to practice good self-care

In most cases, though, it’s not necessary to see a provider for back pain. Why? Back pain often goes away in a few days with no treatment at all. But good self-care can help ease the pain until it does. If you develop back pain, try these tips:

  • Use ice packs and massages to ease the pain. You can also use heating pads for 20 to 30 minutes at a time to help stop muscle spasms. 

  • Bed rest is not recommended for back pain and should be limited. Try to start doing stretching exercises and resume normal activity as soon as possible. Staying in bed too long can actually make pain worse.

  • With your provider’s approval, take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen. This can temporarily reduce pain and inflammation.

If the pain doesn’t get noticeably better within a few weeks, call your provider.

When you need treatment

Back pain is classified into 3 groups: acute, subacute, and chronic. Acute pain goes away within four weeks. Subacute pain lasts for 1 to 3 months. Chronic pain lasts for more than 3 months. It may be caused by a degenerative disease, but also can stem from injuries.

Acute back pain usually gets better on its own. But if your pain persists, talk with your primary care provider. Many primary doctors are experienced in treating back pain. They can also refer you to other providers and specialists if necessary. Other healthcare professionals you may be referred to include: 

  • Physiatrists treat patients who have conditions involving the nerves, brain, and spine.

  • Physical therapists focus on movement and making your muscles stronger.

  • Anesthesiologists can diagnose and treat acute and chronic pain.

  • Surgeons, specifically orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons, treat patients with back pain. Orthopedists provide care for bone and joint diseases, while neurosurgeons perform surgeries for conditions involving the spine, brain, and nerves.



Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik, MBA, BSN, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2024
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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