How to treat your own back pain (and when you shouldn’t)

“Here’s what you should do about low back pain…”

Tell someone you’ve thrown your back out again, and this is the typical advice you’ll get. Friends and family mean well, but without knowing the cause of your pain, there’s not much that anyone can tell you confidently that will apply to your situation. 

Unfortunately, finding someone who knows how to help you often takes effort. You should do it, but we know life gets in the way. If the pain isn’t that bad or doesn’t show up very often, you might put it off. But this would be a mistake because the next time back pain shows up, you might not have the time or energy needed to give it your full attention.

How can you effectively treat your own back and, at the same time, learn why it’s happening?

Low back pain isn’t always an easy problem to solve on your own, but it’s definitely not impossible. With that in mind, here are the 3 most effective self-treatment programs we’ve found for beating low back pain, with proven strategies you can use that can keep the problem from coming back.

Disclaimer: Good judgment is your responsibility. No article can replace a healthcare professional’s advice who has examined you and knows your history and situation. Consider these resources for informational purposes only. 

1. Treat Your Own Back

Treat Your Own Back by Robin McKenzie can be a good program for people who: 

  • Perform lots of driving, sitting, or “hurry up and wait” work.
  • Get a sudden onset of pain when they sneeze or cough.
  • Have pain that worsens with bending forward, like picking up something dropped on the floor, especially if it causes pain to travel down the leg.
  • Have been told they have sciatica or a bulging disc.

If your pain pattern looks like something in the picture below, Treat Your Own Back is the book to get. It’s an easy read, and you can start implementing the program immediately. Later, you can read more in-depth to learn about preventing future pain episodes.

Sciatic nerve pain can be caused by a combination of chemical (inflammation) and mechanical (nerves getting pinched) irritants. This book can be the first-line treatment for both. If the program works, great! If it doesn’t, that’s also critical information you can pass along to a back pain professional.

2. Back Mechanic

Back Mechanic by Stuart McGill is an excellent resource for people who: 

  • Perform lots of heavy lifting or carry heavy gear for extended periods at work.
  • Have long term back problems that tend to flare up the day after “overdoing it.”
  • Have been told they have lumbar spinal disc problems or had a back injury as an athlete or during childhood

MMA fighter Georges St Pierre and kettlebell master Pavel Tsatsouline (more on him later) have worked with Dr. Stuart. And most athletes we know in contact or combat sports would probably get something useful out of this book. There are several self-tests included that can help you determine the cause of back pain when it shows up predictably (such as with certain lifts or exercises).

Back Mechanic is also our go-to recommendation for anyone whose been dealing with back pain for more than a year or so. In that amount of time, the body can become a great compensator to work around the pain, causing other problems and imbalances to develop. This book can help eliminate those bad habits, too.

3. Simple & Sinister

Simple & Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline is not a back-pain treatment book. Still, it has been the solution for many athletes who have specific problems in advancing (or returning to) heavy barbell lifts. We tend to recommend S&S for people who:

  • Have back pain only with specific lifting exercises, including barbell squats, deadlifts, and Olympic style lifts.
  • Have been told that tight hamstrings or pelvic tilt are causing their back pain episodes.
  • Have been medically cleared to start lifting again after back surgery but have a tough time getting back into the big lifts.

The S&S program focuses on two kettlebell exercises that help eliminate common imbalances that can make barbell lifts problematic for some people. The barbell requires equal effort from both sides of your body to create a smooth bar path. If you have a weak side, a kettlebell program can help you identify that weakness and remedy it.

What to do if you continue to have back pain or your problem is more urgent.

We’ve found these resources very helpful for athletes dealing with certain types of back pain, mainly when logistics prevent in-person assessment and treatment. You can learn a lot about how your back functions, how it breaks down, and what you can do about it with a little bit of home study. 

However, if you have recurring low back problems or your pain is urgent, it’s best to get an accurate diagnosis from a professional. See a physical therapist (ortho or sports certified) first if you have back pain or pain or numbness in your legs. See a physician or primary care provider first if you notice 1. bowel/bladder problems, 2. numbness in the groin area, or 3. unrelenting pain even when you get off your feet. These are examples of red flag symptoms that warrant immediate attention.

The sooner you have an accurate diagnosis, the quicker you can get back on track!

-Related Articles-

When you should see a doctor about head, neck, or back pain

How to talk to your doctor so you don’t waste your time

Questions or comments about back pain or injuries? Send us a message

If you have a friend or teammate who could use this information, please share it with them. Thanks!

Photo Credits: Orthopedic Physical Therapy Products; BackFitPro, Inc; StrongFirst, Inc