Low back pain is a universal human experience–almost everyone has it at some point. Most people experience back pain for the first time in their 30s. As people get older, back pain tends to increase. The lower back, which is located below the ribcage, is called the lumbar region. Most low back pain gets better on its own. But, when it does not, there are ways to treat low back pain.

The symptoms of low back pain range from a dull ache to a stabbing or shooting sensation. The pain can be so intense that it can make it difficult to move or even stand up straight, affecting many aspects of one’s life. Acute back pain comes on suddenly, often from an injury involving heavy lifting, a fall, or playing sports. Pain that lasts greater than three months is considered chronic.

Typically, back pain caused by heavy lifting or exercising too hard is caused by muscle strain. But sometimes back pain can be related to one of the discs in the spine that bulges or ruptures. The vertebrae of the spine are cushioned by gel-like discs that are prone to wear and tear from aging or injury. When a disc weakens, and is damaged it puts pressure on the spinal nerves, causing intense pain. If this damaged disc presses on the sciatic nerve, pain may run down the leg, a condition known as sciatica.

Your job may contribute to back pain if it involves lifting, pulling, or other activities that twists the spine. With heavy items, always lift with your legs, not your back. However, even sitting at a desk all day comes with its own risks for back pain, especially if your chair is uncomfortable or if you tend to slouch. Bad posture is a culprit in chronic back pain. Your back supports your weight best when you have good posture. When sitting, it is helpful to have a chair that provides good lumbar support. Sit with your shoulders back with feet resting on a low stool. Change positions often and take breaks from sitting at your desk. When standing, keep your weight evenly balanced on both feet.

Another cause of back pain is wearing a purse, backpack, or briefcase over your shoulder. The lower back supports your upper body, plus any additional weight that you carry. A heavy bag can strain the lower back, especially if you carry one day after day. A better alternative is to switch to a wheeled briefcase.

A person who tends to be physically inactive, and then overdoes an activity such as sports, snow shoveling in the winter, or gardening in the spring—the muscles, not used to being used so vigorously, can be overextended, leading to low back pain. Physical inactivity can also lead to weak muscles, which contribute to back pain. Many who are inactive are also overweight. Even a small loss of excess body weight, especially in the midsection will help reduce stress placed on the back.

Back pain due to a muscle strain will get better on its own; however, you can take steps to make yourself more comfortable. Initially, ice is the most effective, as it numbs the pain and decreases inflammation and swelling. Leave it on for 20 minutes at a time. After 72 hours, a heating pad or warm bath, using Epsom salts will provide pain relief. Creams such as arnica can be applied externally. In the past, doctors would recommend bed rest for back pain. However, this has been shown to actually make the pain worse and reduce muscle tone and flexibility. Now with injuries such as muscle strain, it is recommended to return to your normal activities as soon as possible. The golden rule of any joint health is, the more you move, the less stiffness you will have. Only when back pain lasts for more than six weeks, is worsening, or has other significant symptoms such as loss of bladder or bowel control, numbness around the buttocks and groin, leg weakness, or fever, is it necessary to contact a doctor to determine the cause.

Stretching exercises help relieve back pain. Natural treatments such as massage, acupuncture and chiropractic adjustments may also relieve chronic back pain when combined with exercise and stretching. The best choices for exercise are activities that do not create an impact on the back, such as walking, bicycling and swimming. Another way to reduce back pain is to strengthen the core, the abdominal muscles, which help to support the back.

Regular exercise, including strength training will help your back become stronger overall, reducing risk of injury or pain. Two types of strength-training exercises that benefit the lower back are flexion and extension exercises, either bending forward to stretch the muscles of the back and hips or bending backwards to develop the muscles that support the spine. One example is doing leg lifts while lying on your stomach. Avoid quick, repetitive movements. Do all exercises slowly. It is normal to have some aching muscles after exercise, but if the pain persists after 48 hours, you may have overdone it. Exercising further through the pain can lead to injury or damage.

Calcium and Vitamin D help back health by strengthening the bones. Eat lots of green leafy vegetables. Supplements such as glucosamine can ease joint pain.

Low back pain is very common, but with simple preventative measures and remedies, it does not have to become a chronic condition.