Lifestyle Changes to Manage Low Back Pain and Sciatica
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Modifying activities and learning techniques to decrease stress on the back are important to resolving or controlling low back pain and sciatica. Since back pain tends to recur, lifestyle changes should become a way of life if you hope to avoid future episodes.
General Guidelines for Managing Low Back Pain and Sciatica
- Alter your activities.
- Practice good posture.
- Follow a home exercise program.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- If you smoke, quit.
- Manage stress.
- Modify your environment.
Alter Your Activities
Prolonged bed rest is usually not advised. However, your doctor may recommend resting in bed for one or two days. Too much bed rest can weaken muscles and slow recovery. Doctors recommend staying active within the limits of your pain and avoiding activities that worsen back pain.
Guidelines for activity include:
- Do not bend or twist your back.
- Do not lift heavy objects. Learn the proper way to lift even light objects, using your knees rather than your back for leverage. If necessary, have a physical therapist or ergonomic specialist teach you proper body mechanics for daily activities.
- When lifting, squat down next to the object, hold the object close to your chest, maintain a straight back, and use your leg muscles to slowly rise.
- Plan ahead and ask for assistance with lifting or moving heavy objects.
- Avoid sitting for long periods. When you do sit, choose seats with good lumbar support.
- Avoid standing for long periods. If you need to stand, place a low footstool in front of you and alternate placing each foot on it for a period of time. This will take some of the load off your back.
- Consider job retraining if your work requires a lot of heavy lifting or sitting. Ask whether your company has someone who specializes in helping redesign the workplace for the restrictions an individual with back pain requires.
Practice Good Posture
Poor posture and slouching can put more pressure on your lower back. Stand and sit straight, and avoid sitting up in bed.
Follow a Home Exercise Program
Exercises to stretch and strengthen back and stomach muscles should be performed on a daily basis. A low-impact aerobic program will further improve your physical fitness and help you maintain a healthy weight. Choose exercises that you enjoy and that you can do for about 30 minutes a day, 5 to 7 times a week. Activities that are “back-friendly” include walking, swimming, or biking. Exercise also can help you manage stress. Check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.
Lose Weight If You Are Overweight
Extra pounds increase pressure on the spinal muscles and disks. Follow the dietary and exercise plan recommended by your doctor. To lose weight you have to consume fewer calories than you expend. To maintain a healthy weight, eat an equal number of calories to those you expend.
If You Smoke, Quit
Smoking causes degeneration of the discs in the spine. Smokers risk possible re-injury to the back during a coughing attack.
Stress can increase muscle tension. Take time out to relax, exercise, and practice relaxation techniques. If you need support or assistance in reducing stress, you may want to try some of the following techniques:
- Stress management classes
- Relaxation techniques
- Breathing exercises
Modify Your Environment
Certain changes to your workspace, attire, and home can reduce the stress on your back. Tips include:
- Don't wear high-heeled shoes.
- If you sit for long periods of time, use a stool to bring your knees above your hips.
- Use a lumbar support pillow when sitting or driving.
- Sleep on a firm mattress.
- Don't sleep on your stomach.
- Sleep on your side or on your back with a wedge or pillow under the lower part of your legs.
When to Contact Your Healthcare Provider
More serious symptoms associated with back pain that may require immediate medical attention include:
- Pain that doesn't subside, or worsens with rest
- Pain that is severe or that has gotten dramatically worse
- Progressive weakness in a leg or foot
- Difficulty walking, standing, or moving
- Numbness in the genital or rectal area
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Burning or difficulty with urination
- Fever, unexplained weight loss, or other signs of illness
Conn's Current Therapy 2001 . 53rd edition. W.B. Saunders Company; 2001.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/ .
Textbook of Primary Care Medicine . 3rd edition. Mosby, Inc.; 2001.
Last reviewed February 2007 by Barbara Harty-Golder, MD, JD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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