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I suffered from back pain for years — here’s what finally worked for me

A white woman with brown hair sitting on a modern-looking bed holds her lower back and right shoulder

Manage back pain better with the right products, including these editor-approved picks. (Getty)

I’ll never forget the first time I started having back pain. I tried to hop out of bed in the morning as usual and it was excruciating. It took me several minutes to stand up straight, and I spent the day shuffling around, totally hunched over.

Sitting was incredibly painful, so I started working standing up. After driving, I’d spend several minutes awkwardly standing next to my car, trying to get fully upright again before I could start walking. At one point, my upper torso shifted to the left and locked up that way, forcing me to walk around crooked.

I finally got an MRI and discovered that I had several herniated discs. My doctor isn’t sure why — it could be something as simple as repeatedly lugging around my son’s (incredibly heavy) car seat. I’ve seen several back pain specialists and have been told that there’s nothing they can do short of surgery or steroids, both of which I’d rather avoid.

After years of physical therapy, I finally found a solution that works for me: Biking and swimming, along with daily stretching and core strengthening at home. It requires time and energy, but I’ll happily do it if it means I can avoid back pain in the future. It’s been four years since I made major tweaks to my routine, and I haven’t had a back pain flare since.

I know I’m not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 39% of Americans say they have back pain. If you’re one of them, it’s a good idea to get evaluated by a specialist to figure out why you’re having issues, says Dr. Christopher Wolf, orthopedic spine surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. If you can figure out the source of your pain, you can work to avoid it in the future, according to physical therapist Susan Fu, co-director of Rehabilitation Services at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy Center in Santa Monica, California.

A doctor or physical therapist can evaluate you and help determine your next steps, but back pain treatment generally involves some form of stretching, ice and heat therapy, and strengthening, Wolf says. Fortunately, many products can help, including the tried-and-true buys below.

Amazon

Resistance bands offer an easy way to strength train without a lot of equipment. This five-pack from Fit Simplify comes in extra-light to extra-heavy resistance levels, allowing you to try a range of difficulties and build up to tougher bands. They’re also handy for making core-strengthening exercises like bicycle crunches more challenging. This set comes in several colors and comes with a carrying bag.

$12 at Amazon

Amazon

Your glutes (aka butt muscles) tend to weaken when you have lower back pain, which is why lateral leg raises and hip extensions with weights can help, Wolf says. 

These weights can help strengthen your glutes and support your back. This brand offers a wide range of wrap-around weights, from ¼ pound to 9 pounds. This 1½-pound version is great for most people, but it’s a good idea to check with your doctor first about which one is right for you.

$13 at Amazon

Amazon

Wolf says foam rollers are great for working hard-to-stretch spots, including your IT band (a long piece of connective tissue that runs from your hip to your knee that can contribute to back pain). To use it, put the foam roller on the ground, lie on your side on top of it, and roll the area from your hip to your knee while applying some pressure to the roller.

The molded polypropylene will keep its firmness even with daily use. Choose from 18-, 24- and 36-inch-long versions.

$14 at Amazon

Amazon

Ice can help soothe pain when inflammation gets to be too much. The ColePak has a flexible ice pack and elastic straps that help it conform to your back, knees, shoulders, or anywhere else you need relief. Bear in mind that gel packs like this one get very cold, so you might need to wear a shirt between you and your pack, Fu says. 

This product can also be used for heat therapy to increase blood flow to sore areas. Just pop it in the microwave for 30 seconds or so.

$16 at Amazon

Amazon

This handy strap has 10 loops, so you can easily find the right length for whatever body part you’re trying to stretch. This tool is especially handy if your lower back is the issue. “You can use it to stretch out your hamstrings, which helps your pelvis and back muscles relax,” Wolf says.

The woven nylon material will hold up for years of use and, at over 6 feet long, it works for even the tallest among us. 

$16 at Amazon

Amazon

You can do plenty of exercises with a ball like this one, largely involving core-strengthening moves like planks and side planks, Wolf says. Stability balls are also good for targeting hard-to-stretch areas, he adds. 

These come in a range of sizes to suit your height. The 55-centimeter version works for people between 5 feet and 5 feet 6 inches tall; use the on-page chart to find the proper size.

$18 at Amazon

Amazon

Massage can help you relieve muscle spasms, but that’s not always an option. To treat pain at home, Fu recommends having therapy balls handy. One simple exercise: Place a ball against a wall and lean into it. “The key is to allow yourself to relax when using it and wait for the muscle to actually release,” she says. 

The 2½-inch balls are made of soft rubber that compresses to provide gentle pressure. This set comes with a handy pouch so you can easily travel with them.

$19 at Amazon

Amazon

If you struggle with lower back pain, “it can be helpful to modify sitting,” Wolf says. Using a balance ball chair makes it harder to slouch since you have to sit on your pelvis and keep an upright posture, he explains. 

This option from Gaiam has great reviews — people rave about its comfort and durability. The frame comes with a removable 52-centimeter exercise ball and is designed for people ranging from 5 feet to 5 feet 11 inches. It works with most standard desks, but leg extenders (sold separately) are available.

$70 at Amazon

Amazon

Sometimes the source of back pain can be as simple as poor posture. Wolf recommends investing in a posture-correcting shirt like this one from AlignMed. Made of Spandex and polyester, this zip-up shirt helps move your shoulder blades and back into the right position, taking extra stress off your spine. It also encourages you to activate the muscles needed for good posture. Refer to the on-page size chart to make sure you choose the right one. 

$100 at Amazon

If you have Amazon Prime, you’ll get free shipping, of course. Not yet a member? No problem. You can sign up for your free 30-day trial here. (And by the way, those without Prime still get free shipping on orders of $25 or more.)

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