Low Back Pain Flare-ups Happen

by Christina Lasich, MD Health Professional

Has your back pain suddenly increased lately? Is the back pain more intense or different than before? If so, then you might be experiencing a pain flare-up. The normal day-to-day pain is what you expect and live with. But when a flare-up happens, the pain suddenly goes to an entirely different level.

When this pain event happens, the first question is usually, "Why?" Why did the back pain suddenly change? Several different scenarios can lead to more back pain. The most common cause of a flare-up is an activity. Doing something, anything, can cause a sudden increase in pain. Maybe you did something you normally don't do. Maybe you did more than you should have. Or maybe your body mechanics are not very good and the manner in which you did something irritated your low back. Activity-related flare-ups happen and can happen for the simplest of reasons. Other reasons that back pain increase include illness or other sources of stress. However, sometimes flare-ups happen for no particular reason at all.

The following three questions are probably more important than the "Why" question.

  • How can you avoid a back pain flare-up?

  • How can you abort a back pain flare-up?

  • How can you survive a back pain flare-up?

Let's start with talking about avoiding an increased amount of back pain. The activity-related pain can be avoided by maintaining a sustainable pace, using proper body mechanics, and training for the activity. Slowing down, stopping and resting are great ways to pace yourself and stay within your physical limitations. Bending your knees, moving your feet, and avoiding reaching are basic mechanics that can also help you do more without experiencing a flare-up. But most importantly, training for your activity is the best way to avoid activity-related flare ups. By building strength and endurance, you can do more in the future, comfortably.

If your flare-ups are caused by stress or illness, that is difficult to avoid. But you can help by changing the way you react to these triggers of back pain flare ups. During times of stress, doing more beneficial activities like walking, meditating and stretching can all help to reduce the intensity levels of back pain. Even in the best of circumstances, some flare-ups cannot be avoided.

At those times, you want to try to abort, or shorten the length of time spent at a higher level of pain. The single best way to abort a low back pain flare-up is to unload or decompress the spine. This is accomplished by doing some tractioning with an inversion system or by doing auto-tractioning techniques. Another way to de-escalate back pain is to use a zero gravity chair. The sudden decompression and unloading of the spine can rapidly help you escape a flare-up cycle and also help you avoid surgery.

But if you are already caught up in a cycle of increased pain, then you just want to survive. Medications used in times of dire need can help a great deal. If you are not regularly using an anti-inflammatory medication and have no particular reason not to, then do use an OTC medication like ibuprofen or naproxen. If you have a heating pad, use it. Ask for others to help you in order to ease your work load. And just remember, flare- ups are temporary, but they do happen. They don't necessarily mean that more damage is done or the spine is getting worse. Flare-ups are usually just temporary irritations to sensitive parts in you low back.
Sometimes without rhyme or reason, they just happen.

Christina Lasich, MD
Meet Our Writer
Christina Lasich, MD

Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.