New Ways to Ease Back Pain

Exercise, good posture, and talk therapy can all be powerful treatments

Woman experiencing back pain while working at desk Photo: Getty Images

Is your back always aching? About 40 percent of people 18 and over and almost half of older adults experience this, typically in the lower back, according to a 2019 survey of almost 32,000 people.

Back pain is considered chronic if it continues for more than 12 weeks. In older adults, chronic low-back pain may be overtreated with inappropriate medications such as muscle relaxants or opioids, says Yury Khelemsky, MD, program director of the pain medicine fellowship program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. It may also be undertreated, he says.

As it turns out, some of the most effective back pain strategies for those of us in this age group require no medication.

But you may not know this. “Older adults may not be offered behavioral treatments for pain due to an assumption that they won’t be interested, or a perceived stigma associated with such services,” says Sara Davin, PsyD, MPH, a psychologist at the Center for Spine Health at Cleveland Clinic. “But these are the people that can really benefit from these treatments.”

To help you ease chronic back discomfort, here’s a look at the research behind nondrug treatments, and advice on how to use medication effectively.

The Power of the Mind

A growing pile of research suggests that talk therapy may help you retrain your brain so that you experience less pain and can cope with it better. “This isn’t suggesting that your pain is not real or that it’s ‘all in your head,’” says Tor Wager, PhD, the Diana L. Taylor Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience and director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

A study published last September in the journal PAIN Reports, for example, looked at psychophysiologic symptom relief therapy (PSRT), which addresses stress and other psychological issues that can contribute to persistent discomfort, and helps break associations that may set off pain, like bending or sitting. This study found that 64 percent of back pain sufferers who tried PSRT reported being pain-free six and a half months later.

More on Pain Relief

Also promising is pain reprocessing therapy (PRT), which “teaches people to perceive pain signals sent to the brain as less threatening,” says Wager. In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, 66 percent of participants with chronic back pain reported much less or no pain after four weeks of the therapy.

Because PSRT and PRT are relatively new, and considered experimental, they are not always easily accessible or covered by insurance. Other talk therapy often is—and may be available in programs where patients work with a team of experts.

For instance, Cleveland Clinic’s Back on TREK program partners spine specialists, physical therapists, and behavioral medicine experts. A study published in the journal Spine in 2019 found that people who participated for 10 to 12 weeks said afterward that their pain was less debilitating and that they felt less depressed and anxious. “We also know these approaches can help reduce stress, which is important because pain triggers the release of stress hormones that make muscles tighten up,” says Davin, lead author on the study.

Interested? Davin suggests working with a psychologist or therapist who focuses on pain management. Your doctor may be able to suggest one, or check the American Psychological Association’s therapist finder (locator.apa.org).

A Good Posture Prescription

“Pandemic posture,” from, say, slouching over a computer or tablet from the comfort of your couch, has caused a rise in back and neck pain. Spending a lot of time on electronics may also lead to back muscle spasms and fatigue, says Khelemsky: “We’re not meant to sit at computers for 8 to 10 hours a day at any age.”

To help with posture-related pain, Khelemsky suggests opting for a chair—not a couch—while using a computer or tablet. Sit with your back straight and your shoulders back, your rear end touching the back of the chair, and your feet flat on the floor. You can use a small, rolled-up towel to help support your back and a foot rest, phone book, or step stool to help your feet reach the ground while sitting. If you don’t have a chair that provides good back support, consider buying one.

Take frequent movement breaks as well, says Colleen Louw, PT, MEd, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association and director of therapeutic pain specialist certification for Evidence In Motion, which offers courses for healthcare professionals like physical therapists. Every half hour, get up and stretch or take a short walk to relieve pressure on your spine.

Practice good standing posture, too: Whenever you’re on your feet, remind yourself to stand straight and tall with shoulders back, abdomen pulled in, and feet shoulder-width apart.

Care for Your Core

While it may hurt to move around, staying active can ultimately help to relieve back pain, says Daniel Park, MD, a spine surgeon at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Weight loss, if appropriate, is also beneficial. “Even losing just 5 pounds takes about 20 pounds of pressure off of your spine,” Park says.

But strengthening your back and core muscles—those around your pelvis, lower back, hips, and abdomen—may be the key, says Louw. These naturally weaken as we age, leading to a loss of back support. That can cause chronic pain and, in turn, make common activities like reaching to grab an item from an upper cabinet challenging.

Though core and back exercises are plentiful online, Louw recommends asking your doctor about physical therapy, where you’ll be taught strengthening moves that are safe and effective for you. “These should all be tailored to your specific needs and challenges,” she says.

Pain Meds: What to Try, What to Skip

Medication for chronic back pain “should be an adjunct for older adults, and not the main treatment,” says Roger Chou, MD, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “It’s important to be cautious, and try to use the lowest dose possible, for the shortest period of time.” Here’s what to know about over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medication options.

OTC drugs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (Advil, generic) are usually the first treatment of choice but may not be appropriate for older adults, says Chou—frequent use may raise heart attack and GI bleeding risks. (The same goes for prescription anti-inflammatories.) Instead, you can try acetaminophen (Tylenol, generic) for a week or two, staying under 3,000 mg a day, he says.

RX drugs: If pain persists after a few months, you can ask your doctor about the antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta, generic). Muscle relaxants should be used with caution in older adults, says Chou—they can cause dizziness and hike fall risks. Groups like the American College of Physicians advise against opioids like oxycodone (Oxycontin, generic) as a firstline therapy for similar reasons.

How to Handle a 'Back Attack'

If your back starts to hurt suddenly, consider this expert advice:

  • Ice it intermittently. After a few days, try applying a heating pad or heat wrap.
  • Take acetaminophen, following package directions, for three to five days.
  • Move around as you can.
  • At night, lie on your side with your upper knee bent and a pillow between your knees.

Alert or see your doctor ASAP if you also:

  • Are experiencing unusual symptoms like incontinence and pain and/or weakness in your legs. These may signal a serious issue.
  • Have fallen or been injured.
  • Have osteoporosis and back pain is sharp and jolting. You’ll want your doctor to rule out a compression fracture.

Tell your doctor if you:

  • Have fever along with sudden back pain or are in discomfort even when you are lying down.
  • Find that the pain lingers for more than four weeks.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the March 2022 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.


Hallie Levine

Hallie Levine is an award-winning magazine and freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports on health and fitness topics. Her work has been published in Health, Prevention, Reader's Digest, and Parents, among others. She's a mom to three kids and a fat but feisty black Labrador retriever named Ivry. In her (nonexistent) spare time, she likes to read, swim, and run marathons.