Sleep Resources

Chronic vs. Acute Back Pain

Protect yourself from back pain with these helpful tips

By Daniel Grogan

Waking up with back pain can put a damper on your whole day, and having constant back pain can make your entire life much more difficult. These types of back pains have specific names (chronic back pain and acute back pain), and it’s important that you understand their underlying causes as well as the best strategies to combat them.

Chronic Back Pain

Chronic back pain is a type of pain that develops over a long period of time, and if left untreated, it can become much worse. There are numerous spinal diseases and conditions that can trigger pain signals and aggravate chronic back pain, such as Degenerative Disc Diseases, Osteoarthritis, Spinal Stenosis, herniated discs, Osteomyelitis, Osteoporosis, and Sciatica. Usually, you’ll need some form of physical therapy to assist with chronic low back pain, but there are also various other options, which I will discuss later on.

When talking about chronic back pain, it’s important to understand a concept known as radiculopathy. Radiculopathy describes the symptoms that are caused by nerve roots being pinched along your spinal column. You can experience a pinched nerve at various spots along the spinal cord, such as on the lumbar, the cervical, or thoracic. Radiculopathy symptoms can range from numbness, to tingling, to constant pain.

Acute Back Pain

Acute back pain usually develops almost instantaneously, oftentimes as a result of an identifiable injury. This is the type of short-term back pain you might sense when you have a bad night’s sleep. Acute back pain is usually the result of sprains and strains of soft tissues in your back muscles, ligaments, and tendons. In addition to poor sleep hygiene, muscle spasms and improper posture are common causes of acute low back pain.

Sleeping with Back Pain

Back pain, whether it’s chronic or acute, can make sleeping extremely difficult. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce back pain so that you can get a good night’s rest. Read on to learn more about sleeping with lower back pain.

Can Your Sleeping Position Cause Back Pain?

If you deal with back pain and neck pain, it’s possible that your sleeping position could be causing or aggravating it. We all have our own preferred sleep positions, but it may be time to modify them in order to combat back issues.

Sleeping on your back is considered one of the best sleeping positions for most people because it evenly distributes your body weight and puts less strain on your back. While sleeping on your back, make sure you have a softer pillow that will keep your spine adequately aligned with your neck. You can also place a pillow underneath your legs to keep them level with the rest of your body.

Keep in mind that sleeping on your back isn’t advised for people with sleep apnea or pregnant women in their second or third trimesters.

Sleeping on your side can help alleviate back pain, but only if your mattress is soft and supportive enough, and if your pillow has enough loft. Memory foam and latex mattresses are excellent for side sleepers because they support their hips and shoulders and ensure maximum alignment.

According to the American Chiropractic Association, stomach sleepers may be making their back pain much worse due to the fact that this position flattens the natural curve of your spine and places excessive strain on your lower back. In addition, when you sleep on your stomach, you’re putting strain on your neck as you keep your head turned to the side all night long.

If you’re a stomach sleeper and you’re happy with this position, we advise you to use a soft pillow that keeps your neck aligned with your spine. You can also place a soft, thin pillow underneath your hips to reduce the weight on your pelvis. Or, if you’re willing, try switching positions with our helpful guide on how to train yourself to sleep on your back. 

Can Your Mattress Cause Back Pain?

Your mattress can have a significant impact on your back health. Older mattresses don’t offer as high a level of support as their newer counterparts, and they won’t do a good job of relieving pressure points or promoting spinal alignment. 

If you’re going to be shopping for a new mattress, you need to make sure you pick the right mattress material that will ease your back pain. 

For side sleepers, it’s recommended that you pick a memory foam or latex mattress, which will be bouncy and soft so that your spine will be aligned and your hips and shoulders will be supported. 

For back sleepers, you will want a high-density foam mattress, an innerspring mattress, or even a hybrid mattress that is medium-firm. 

Stomach sleepers will most likely get the right amount of back support from a dense innerspring or coil mattress.

How to Properly Get In and Out of Bed

The way you get in and out of bed can affect your spinal health, so you’ll want to use methods that put minimal pressure on your back.

To get into bed, it’s advised that you sit on the edge of the mattress, then lean to the left or right and slowly ease yourself down while keeping your spine aligned. Then, you’ll want to bring your knees up to the mattress, remaining entirely on your side. From there, you’ll gently roll onto your back.

Complete this method in reverse to safely get out of bed with little strain on your back.

Pain Inhibitors

For brief moments of back pain, it might be a good idea to try some over-the-counter pain management medicine. OTC anti-inflammatory drugs like acetaminophen, Advil, or ibuprofen can help with brief periods of pain, but do not take them beyond the recommended dosage or for chronic pain syndrome.

When to See a Doctor

Eventually, your back pain might be so severe that you can’t rectify it with these treatment options. At that point, we encourage you to reach out to a healthcare professional who can give you sound medical advice. Speak with a physical therapist, orthopedic specialist, or a pharmacologic expert to see if they have any recommendations for treatment of low back pain.

If you notice any of these signs, then it’s advised you go to a medical professional such as your primary care doctor sooner rather than later so they can conduct proper tests (such as magnetic resonance imaging) to make a proper diagnosis.

  • You’re experiencing a fever, which could potentially be caused by an infection
  • You have a history of cancer or other potential risk factors
  • You’re experiencing numbness or tingling, which can be the result of nerve damage
  • The pain is lasting more than 6 weeks
  • You can no longer control your bladder or bowels (known as cauda equina syndrome)
  • You’ve experienced trauma recently, especially along the spinal canal

Seeking expert medical help could be your best course of action for chronic back pain. You may be prescribed opioids, muscle relaxants, analgesics, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), or even alternative treatment options such as acupuncture to deal with underlying causes of chronic back pain like herniation. In certain cases, epidurals or other surgical treatments may be the best course of action for treatment of non-specific low back pain in patients.