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Is Bed Rest Good for Back Pain?

By: Suzanne Elvidge BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 18 Sep 2012 |
Back Paion Bed Rest Muscles Stiff Joints

Is bed rest good for back pain? No. That’s the short answer. Now for the rather longer answer…

Around 70-85% of people will have back pain at some point in their lives, and back pain causes a lot of stress, distress and lost days at work. Since the 19th century, bed rest has been thought to be the standard treatment for simple lower back pain, for example from a strain or a sprain. It now seems that it makes things worse rather than better.

Does Bed Rest Work for Back Pain?

An overview of a lot of studies of rest and back pain, published in the Cochrane Library, showed that the people with straightforward lower back pain who rested in bed for any length of time tended to have more pain and found it more difficult to return to normal activities than the people who stayed active throughout their attack of back pain. However, despite these studies, some doctors and other practitioners do still recommend bed rest for lower back pain

What is Wrong With Bed Rest?

As shown in the review of these studies, staying in bed can make back pain worse. This may be because it allows the muscles and the joints to become stiff.

Medical research has showed bed rest can also slow down the recovery to full fitness after an attack of back pain – a study in Helsinki showed the people with back pain who stayed in bed got better more slowly and took more time off sick from work than the people who (carefully) resumed their normal activities.

An extended stay in bed, for whatever reason, can allow all the muscles to get weaker, including those in the back, which makes it all the more likely back pain will strike again. Extended bed rest can also increase the risk of blood clots and skin ulcers (bed sores).

Is Bed Rest Ever A Good Idea?

Lying down for a short while, especially on a firm surface with the legs bent slightly, can stretch out the muscles and temporarily ease back pain. In bed at night, lying on the side with a pillow between the knees, or lying on the back with a pillow under the knees can help.

What is the Alternative to Bed Rest?

Keeping moving and taking part in normal daily activities are important in dealing with simple lower back pain. Taking over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, and painkillers should help with the pain and any swelling, and speed the return to normal activities. Be aware of not exceeding the stated dose, however painful it is, and watch out for any interactions with food or any other drugs.

Stretching and moving about stops muscles from stiffening up. Gentle exercise (see ‘Exercise for Back Pain’) will help flexibility and might help recovery – and exercises that strengthen the back and stomach muscles could help with posture and with preventing back pain in the future. However, before exercising with back pain, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor.

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