When back pain hits, you may think you need to lie in bed until the pain goes away. Although a day or two of bed rest can help relieve pain, studies show that staying in bed longer than 48 hours won't help. In fact, research suggests that if you continue to move around and find a position that's comfortable, you can recover just as quickly without bed rest.
"One of the most common reasons that people will see a doctor is because of back pain," says Dr. David Hall, a Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group double board-certified internal medicine and pediatrics doctor. "The good news is that back pain will usually go away on its own. Many patients have a marked improvement within one to two weeks, and 80 percent fully recover by six to eight weeks," he says.
Dr. Hall notes that staying in bed longer than two days can cause increased stiffness and pain, and a slower recovery because you lose muscle strength and flexibility when you're not moving and bending.
"With bed rest, you lose about 1 percent of your muscle strength each day, which can increase to a 20 to 30 percent loss in a week," he says. "Patients treated with bed rest have been shown to have more pain and slower recovery than ambulatory patients. We generally advise patients to return to activities of daily living and work as soon as possible, and try to avoid prolonged periods of inactivity."
This increased loss in muscle strength can mean a more difficult recovery. In addition, the amount of physical therapy you might need may also be greater after a lengthy bout of bed rest, translating to higher costs and possibly more time off from work.
However, there are times when bed rest longer than 48 hours is needed such as spinal fractures, which require close evaluation by your doctor.
Tips for lower-back pain relief
Dr. Hall recommends applying heat or ice to help reduce any discomfort in your lower back. "If needed, you can also take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil® or Motrin® IB) or naproxen (Aleve®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®) for pain relief," he says.
Be sure to see a doctor right away if you experience the following:
- Severe back pain that lasts longer than 24 to 48 hours
- Back pain with a fever
- Back pain with numbness, pain or weakness in your leg or foot
"For most types of back pain, the sooner you start physical therapy or get back to moving around and walking, the faster you will likely recover," says Dr. Hall.
At Sharp Rees-Stealy, we want to empower you to make well-informed choices when getting treatment for back pain. That's why we've made it our priority to support our doctors in helping you make smart and effective decisions by participating in Choosing Wisely®.
Choosing Wisely, an initiative of the ABIM Foundation, educates patients and doctors on selecting the most effective treatment available and avoiding unproductive, costly procedures. Sharp Rees-Stealy is the only medical group in Southern California to participate in this national campaign.