One wrong move followed by that dreaded pop and you know: You’ve thrown out your back. “Most of the time the culprit is the lumbar spine,” says Liz Owen, a Boston-based yoga teacher and coauthor of Yoga For A Healthy Lower Back. “That’s the five vertebrae that people usually point to when they complain about lower back pain.” This area of the spine bears the bulk of your body weight and is responsible for most of the movements your back is capable of. That’s a big job for a small area. All that pressure makes the surrounding muscles, ligaments, and spinal discs vulnerable to injuries. According to Owen, the sacroiliac joints just beneath your spine that connect to the sacrum are similarly vulnerable, along with your wing-like hipbones (make sure you Keep Your Hips Healthy With These 3 Essential Poses).
Hopefully, if you find yourself incapacitated, you have a chiropractor or massage therapist on speed dial, which is smart because a good therapist Knows A Lot About You After One Hour and can often fix issues you weren’t even aware of. But if you hurt yourself while going about your day, you probably can’t make it to the massage table right away.
Click through the slideshow and follow these simple steps immediately following an injury to protect you from exacerbating the problem and give your body a chance to start healing.
If you’ve just hurt yourself, the first thing you should do is to get upright and into a posture that will keep you from doing further damage. You want your spine to be in a neutral position, advises Owen. If you’ve hurt yourself while bending over , “gently bend your knees, and place your hands on your thighs. Keeping your knees bent, exhale and drop your tailbone slightly toward the floor. Now slowly lift your trunk and gently straighten your legs, keeping your tailbone long. You’ll know you have a neutral spine when your shoulders are over your hips, as if you’re standing against a wall, and your lower back feels long, rather than overarched.”
Once you’re standing up, gently engage your core muscles. If tightening a muscle seems like a dangerous idea when you’re already in pain, consider this: One of your abdominal core’s main functions is to stabilize your lower back, so engaging your core will create a steadying effect. Owen advises bending your knees, resting your hands on your thighs, and imagining a string drawing your navel back toward your spine. Slowly straighten your legs, maintaining your core muscle engagement. “You should feel your core muscles hugging back toward your lower back so it doesn’t overarch,” she says.
“Once you are upright and stabilized, do whatever you can to stay that way so your injury doesn’t worsen,” says Keith Puri, a chiropractor based in Arlington, Massachusetts. That means avoiding what’s known as BLT—bending, lifting, and twisting—while you’re hurt. If you need to pick something up off the floor, keep your spine straight and your core engaged, and drop your tailbone toward the floor in a squat. “Looking up to the ceiling can help keep your spine straight,” says Puri, which will help prevent you from leaning forward and putting stress on your back. When you need to lean forward to brush your teeth or wash dishes, try a hip hinge: Maintain a straight, neutral spine while bending forward from your hips.
To avoid twisting your spinal muscles, think about turning rather than rotating, Puri says. That means turning your whole body to face whatever you need to be reaching for, rather than leaning to the side or reaching around yourself. Puri explains that stability should be a higher priority than convenience, even if that means a multistep process for things like getting into and out of your car. “It is definitely less efficient, but the benefits significantly outweigh the time lost,” he says.
Puri also recommends keeping a tube of homeopathic pain relief gel like arnica in your purse, gym bag, or briefcase. When injury strikes, it can give the the injured area a mild cooling sensation and bring down inflammation and swelling to help blood flow to the area.
Over-the-counter ibuprofen tablets can also be taken immediately for their anti-inflammatory properties. But remember that medication may mask your symptoms, so continue to treat yourself as if you have an injury. And don’t skimp on water. If you hurt yourself while exercising, you may already be dehydrated from the sweating process. But Puri warns that chronic dehydration can also affect the strength and quality of your spinal muscles, making injuries more common and long-lasting. Aim for 8 glasses per day, especially when you’re nursing an injury.
Once you get to a place where you can rest, Puri advises trying some basic self-care practices to maintain the stability. Try lying on your back on a firm sofa or bed with pillows under your knees. Your goal here is to encourage the entire lower back to rest against a solid surface, allowing the muscles to release.
Owen adds that lying on the floor on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor—or even standing against a wall if you can’t lie down—can help back muscles come out of a spasm. When you’re ready, try hugging one knee into your chest while gently stretching your other leg straight onto the floor. As you inhale and exhale, move the bent leg slightly away from and then closer to your chest. Repeat this with the other leg.
If your situation doesn’t significantly improve or even resolve in a day or two, it is probably time to consult a physician, chiropractor, certified massage therapist, or other healing professional. But worrying that you’ve done permanent damage to your back is not only emotionally draining; it could actually cause you to further tighten your already-hurting body.
Related: 3 Easy Poses To Save Your Back
“When a lower back episode occurs, it’s natural to feel scared that your back will never get better,” says Owen. “As much as your back may be challenged at the moment, remember that your muscles are simply overworking, doing a temporary job of trying to support your spine. Listen to your pain, take care of your back, and as the injury subsides, your muscles will relax, and they will most likely return to normal in a short period of time.”
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is the coauthor of Yoga for a Healthy Lower Back: A Practical Guide to Developing Strength and Relieving Pain and a freelance writer.