Back pain can stem from an injury, such as muscle strain from lifting a heavy object. Or it can be caused by wear and tear on the joints, disks, and ligaments that hold the spine in place. Chronic back pain often arises from disks that have degenerated. That can result in “slipped” (or herniated) disks that can bulge and press on nerves. Sometimes slipped disks allow the spine’s bones (vertebrae), which are otherwise normally supported in place by the disks, to slide on top of each other and also irritate nerves. Osteoporosis (a condition that causes weak and brittle bones) can cause compression fractures that can also lead to lower back pain. About 80 percent of adults suffer from lower back pain at some point, and it affects more women than men.

Treat It First With

Any kind of gentle movement—walking, swimming, or yoga, for example—will help. That can reduce pain and speed recovery, according to the independent research group Cochrane Library, which conducted a large analysis of 61 back-pain studies. For more relief, an NSAID pain reliever like ibuprofen (Advil and generic) or naproxen (Aleve and generic) can help.

If That Doesn’t Work

Be patient. Most cases of lower back pain resolve themselves within four weeks. If your back doesn’t get better, see a doctor. The pain could be a symptom of an underlying condition such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, or osteoporosis. If that’s not the case, your doctor may recommend a hands-on treatment for how to get rid of back pain, such as chiropractic, massage, or physical therapy.

Get to an Emergency Room

If you experience weakness or sudden urinary or bowel incontinence, or if pain is so severe you can’t drive or use stairs. Seek care immediately for your current back pain if you’ve had a previous back injury or a severe fall, or you’ve had cancer.

Never Do This

Bed rest should be avoided; it can prolong recovery time. Also skip back-support braces and patches, balms, and creams such as Bengay or Icy Hot as a way for how to get rid of lower back pain; they haven’t been shown to help. Consider back surgery only if your pain is clearly linked to a herniated disk or spinal stenosis (the narrowing of the spinal column) that hasn’t improved with other treatment after several months.

Prevent It in the First Place

Do exercises to strengthen the core muscles supporting your spine, and your abdominal, back, and hip muscles. Avoid any exercise that causes you to stretch your back to the point of discomfort. Bend at the knees when lifting a heavy object, and keep it close to your body with your knees slightly bent as you hold it. Practice good posture: Don’t slump when you sit, and use the muscles in your shoulders and abdomen to maintain your spine in a neutral position.

People with back pain sometimes also suffer from depression. Treating the depression can lessen the pain because the same chemical messengers in the brain influence your mood and how you perceive pain. The antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta and generic) is FDA-approved for treating chronic lower back pain. A word of warning: The drug can cause rare but serious side effects, including lowered blood pressure (leading to dizziness and falls) and a risk of liver failure.

Editor's Note: This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

This article also appeared in the June 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.