Back pain from osteoarthritis can make a person feel helpless, but steps can be taken at home to ease pain and improve spine function.

There are many ways patients might ease arthritic back pain. Patients may need an initial consult with a doctor or physical therapist regarding what activities and specific exercises are safe and potentially beneficial.

Periodic Rest

A little discomfort is to be expected as stiff joints loosen up in the morning or at the beginning of exercise. However, moderate to serious back pain is a signal that the spine, surrounding muscles and other soft tissue need a rest.

For example, people with low back pain may benefit from curling up on a firm mattress for a couple of hours (the fetal position takes pressure of the facet joints). When pain is extreme, a person may require 1 to 2 days of rest.

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Heat and Cold Therapy

Using a warming pad or whirlpool for a few minutes can loosen a stiff back and make activity easier. Icing the back for 15 or 20 minutes after activity can decrease swelling and provide quick pain relief.

These temporary treatments will not alleviate the underlying causes of back pain or improve long-term joint function.

Weight Loss and Physical Therapy

Extra pounds put extra pressure on the spine's facet joints. People who are obese are 5 times more likely to have osteoarthritis in the lumbar spine. A diet to maintain healthy weight can pay big dividends for those suffering from osteoarthritis of the spine, particularly osteoarthritis of the lumbar spine.3

Strengthening and stretching the back is crucial to treating spinal osteoarthritis. Strong, flexible back and neck muscles support the spine and ease pressure on the vertebral discs and facet joints, thereby reducing further progression of symptoms.

A doctor or physical therapist can build a patient-specific exercise program that includes the following:

  • Neck and back exercises to build strength. Exercises that increase muscle strength will help support arthritic joints and reduce the stress put on them. Inexpensive devices that add resistance, such as exercise bands, can be used in addition to resistance and weight machines.
  • Low impact aerobic exercise. Aerobic activities keep the lungs and circulation systems in shape, as well as help control weight. Popular activities that do not place undue stress on the spine include walking, stationary cycling, and exercising in the water (e.g. water therapy or pool therapy).
  • Range of motion exercises. These exercises are focused on keeping the back joints limber, relieving stiffness and maintaining normal joint motion in the back. Examples include gentle stretches sideways, forward, and backward. Gentle yoga that encourages flexibility may be beneficial.

Specific recommended exercises may depend on where the source of pain is located in the spine. Patients should consult their health care professional before beginning an exercise routine.

Activity Modification

While physical therapy and exercises are helpful, some types of activities will aggravate the back and should be avoided. For example:

  • Heavy lifting, including carrying heavy bags or backpacks, can strain the neck and back. Backpacks with roller wheels are recommended.
  • People with osteoarthritis in the lumbar spine may want to avoid deep bending at the waist or deep twisting.
  • People with cervical spine osteoarthritis should avoid putting extra pressure on the head and neck, such as doing as headstands in yoga classes.

Movements that strain the neck or back should be avoided or done slowly and with caution.

Supportive Devices

Certain orthopedic products may be used to help stabilize or take pressure off the back:

  • A back brace or "lumbar corset" can provide extra support for the lower back.
  • A firm, supportive mattress can take pressure off the spine during sleep.
  • People with cervical spine osteoarthritis may consider switching to more supportive sleeping pillow.
  • People with moderate to severe spine degeneration may consider a walker or cane.

Coping Techniques

Patients may use relaxation (e.g. relaxation tapes, meditation), visual imagery, biofeedback, or hypnosis to manage pain.

These pain management techniques, along with a positive attitude that focuses on what activities are possible, can have a significant impact in moderating neck or back pain.

References

  1. Suri, P, Katz JN, Rainville J, Kalichman L, Guermazi A, Hunter DJ. Vascular disease is associated with facet joint osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis and cartilage / OARS, Osteoarthritis Research Society 1 September 2010. PMCID: PMC2948048.
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