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What works best for relieving back pain?

December 2017 Share with   facebook   twitter

If you suffer from a bad back, you’re not suffering alone: low back pain is the leading cause of discomfort and disability in the world and the prevalence peaks in older age.

However, there are ways to get relief. Here are some treatments and strategies that show promise for reducing pain and disability caused by low back pain.

Non-drug therapies

Remedies that don’t involve drugs (which come with the risk of side effects) are often the first line of defense when it comes to pain relief, particularly for chronic, long term low back pain. Research on the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal shows that yoga and other types of motor control exercises including Tai Chi have the greatest effect on reducing pain levels and increasing function in adults with low back pain. There is also evidence that acupuncture, massage and rehabilitation can help relieve pain.

The effectiveness of these therapies reinforces the recommendation that people experiencing back pain should move, stretch and perform certain types of exercise – even though their inclination might be to just rest. Research studies have also shown that strength/resistance training helps to alleviate back pain, strengthen muscles and improve mobility.

Medication options

For people who do not respond to non-drug approaches as the first line of treatment, the research-based recommendation is to try NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for either acute or chronic pain. As a second choice, duloxetine, a type of antidepressant, was shown to help relieve chronic back pain.

Opioids may also help reduce back pain, but have higher risks of side effects, addiction and overdose.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist what type of medications you are prescribed for your pain and advice about weighing the risks vs. benefits for your situation.


Do you value credible health information? McMaster University has developed the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal to give you access to research-based information to help you age well and manage your health conditions. Visit the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal for more evidence-based information to support healthy aging. 

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