Tips for Managing Back or Neck Pain


Nearly 100 million Americans suffer from neck and back pain each year. Fortunately, you can often treat your pain at home. Here are some tips to relieve back and neck pain, ways to prevent pain in the future and steps to take when your pain may signal a more serious health issue. Learn more about spine care treatment.

Six Tips for Pain Relief at Home

Applying ice can reduce the chance of swelling and pain in the first two to three days after an injury. Protect your skin by wrapping the ice in cloth – like a pillowcase – before applying it to your injury. The ice can remain on the injured area for 20 minutes at a time. Repeat this every two to three hours as needed.

Applying heat to a recent injury may aid healing. Heat relaxes the muscles and increases blood flow to the injured area. Apply heat to your injury for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day as needed. You may alternate between applying heat and ice. Do not apply heat over a medication patch. In addition, avoid using heat on an incision for the first few days after surgery. Do not fall asleep while using a heating pad or lie directly on a heating pad, which could burn your skin.

Acetaminophen and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen can help manage pain. If you have questions about whether these medications are safe for you or which would be best, contact your health care provider. Read the label to find out how much you can take safely and how often you can take it. You may also want to talk to your health care provider about pain relief creams. They can be effective, but they also may contain NSAIDs and can push your total dosage for this type of pain reliever over allowable levels.

Use pillows to take pressure off your injured area when you lie down. For back pain, place a pillow under your knees when lying on your back. When lying on your side, place the pillow between your legs. For neck pain, try placing pillows under your arms. You may also find that switching to a different pillow provides relief.

Gently stretching the muscles that support your spine may help ease some of your pain. For your lower back, gently stretch your back and legs. For your neck, move and stretch your neck and shoulder blades. Stretch slowly and carefully, avoiding any positions or movements that feel uncomfortable. Much like stretching, massage can also reduce pain.

When you're in pain, exercise may be the last thing you want to do. But research shows that low-impact exercise can help decrease some back and neck pain. Avoiding movement can make your pain worse. Start slowly, with gentle activities such as walking or moving in a pool for 10 minutes. As you begin to feel better, you can increase your activity levels.

Don’t ignore serious symptoms. If you are experiencing fever, numbness, weakness, bowel or bladder incontinence, visit the nearest emergency room. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

Preventing Chronic Back and Neck Pain

If you experience frequent back and neck pain, consider some functional and lifestyle changes.

couple walking outdoors

Invest in prevention

People often spend about seven to eight hours a day in bed. And you may spend the same amount of time on your feet or at your desk. Each of these activities can place stress on your body if you’re not using the right equipment. Take care of your back by investing in:

  • A desk that’s the proper height for using your keyboard and looking at your monitor without straining your neck or back 
  • A mattress that supports your spine
  • A pillow that doesn’t cause neck strain 
  • An ergonomic chair that supports your back and helps you sit straight
  • Shoes that fit well and offer support 

Pay attention to mechanics

The way you perform simple, daily tasks can put you at risk for back and neck pain. Here are some ways you can support your back and neck day to day: 

  • Be sure to move your hips when twisting your body to avoid too much strain on your back. Stepping and turning with your legs can also help reduce strain.
  • When lifting something, bend at your knees and hips, not at your waist.
  • Practice good posture. Keep your spine straight when walking, standing and sitting, and avoid slouching.
  • Look forward and sit up straight when looking at your phone to avoid developing neck pain.
  • Do core-strengthening exercises. When our core muscles are weak, our backs work harder to keep our spines stable, which can lead to injury.
  • If you’re in pain, choose low-impact activities like walking, swimming and bike riding. As you feel better, you can progress to more physically demanding activities like running and jumping.
  • Stretch regularly. Tight muscles may put a strain on your back and neck. 

Stay healthy

Pain in your back or neck may be linked to other health issues such as chronic stress or sleep disorders. Staying healthy – in mind, body and spirit – is one of the best ways to prevent pain and injury. Here’s how:

  • Get at least seven hours of sleep each night, and keep a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Reduce your stress.

Don’t smoke

Studies suggest that people who smoke are nearly three times more likely to develop chronic back pain. Smoking can delay or interrupt healing, and in some cases it can prevent full recovery from an injury or medical procedure. If you smoke or use nicotine products, get help to stop.

Understanding Back and Neck Pain

Describing the type of pain you experience may help your provider identify the cause and the best treatment for your injury. Back pain and neck pain fall into two categories:

Acute pain comes on suddenly and can be caused by injury.

Chronic pain can be caused by weak muscles, poor posture and conditions like arthritis. It continues beyond three months.

Back and neck pain can have many causes, including simple ones like sleeping in an awkward position. Here are some other common causes: 

  • Arthritis
  • Neurological or mechanical issues in the spine
  • Soft tissue strain

In addition to being acute or chronic, your pain may be limited to one area of your back or cover a number of areas. You may experience one or more of the following types of pain or sensation:

  • Achiness along your spine or neck
  • Burning, dull or sharp pain in a single spot or radiating over a larger area
  • Shooting pain, numbness or tingling that may extend from your neck or back to your extremities
  • Stiffness along your spine
  • Other symptoms
  • In addition to the types of pain listed above, you may experience other symptoms with back or neck injuries. These include:

    • Fatigue
    • Headaches
    • Irritability

Don’t ignore serious symptoms.

If you are experiencing fever, numbness, weakness, bowel or bladder incontinence, visit the nearest emergency room.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

When to See Your Provider

Not all back and neck pain responds to home treatments. If your pain doesn't improve with the use of NSAID pain medication or after you cut back on activities, we recommend seeing your primary care provider. If you need to establish care with a primary care provider, find one using our provider directory.

During your visit, your primary care provider will ask you about your pain, activity levels and how you've been treating yourself at home. You can prepare for your visit and help your provider give you the most accurate diagnosis by preparing to answer these questions:

  • Do you have any new trouble emptying your bladder or making it to the bathroom in time?
  • Do you have any new weakness – for example, trouble lifting your foot or gripping things, or dropping things or falling more often?
  • Do you have numbness or tingling? (If you have numbness in your buttocks or when wiping with toilet paper, tell your provider right away.)
  • How long have you been experiencing the pain?
  • Were you in an accident or did an activity cause your pain?
  • What have you been doing at home to relieve your pain?
  • What makes your pain worse? What makes it better?
  • What type of pain are you experiencing?
  • Where is your pain?

Your primary care provider will perform an examination and possibly ask for X-rays or other imaging. They also may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medication. Depending on their findings and your progress with initial treatment, your provider may refer you to one of the following specialists or treatments.

  • Physical therapist. These specialists help patients heal through movement and exercise.
  • Neurologist. These physicians treat disorders of the brain and nervous system. Some specialize in treating spinal issues that can cause back and neck pain.
  • Orthopedist. These physicians treat injuries and conditions of the bones, muscles, joints and soft tissues.
  • Physical rehabilitation medicine specialist (physiatrist). These physicians help find the source of pain and create personalized treatment plans for patients.
  • Specialized injections. Steroid injections, nerve blocks and other spinal injections administered by a pain specialist may be recommended to ease or block pain.
  • Integrative therapies. Acupuncture, chiropractic treatments and massage therapy may also be recommended.

Many people who have back and neck pain don't need surgery to find relief. However, if your pain is severe or persistent or if you're experiencing other symptoms, your care provider may perform tests to make sure you don't have a more serious health issue. These tests may include diagnostic tools like an MRI.

If you need surgery, your Providence care team will be with you every step of the way. They'll work with you to create a personalized treatment plan, help coordinate your care, and be there when you or your loved ones have questions or concerns.

If your provider recommends surgery, here are some questions to ask:

  • How long will I be in the hospital?
  • How much help will I need during my recovery?
  • Is there anything I should do to prepare for surgery?
  • What are the risks of the operation?
  • What will my recovery look like?
  • Will I be in a lot of pain?
  • Will my condition worsen if I don't have surgery?

At Providence, we want to take the fear out of surgery and help you see it as a way to get back to the people and things you love.