Lifestyle Changes to Manage Low Back Pain and Sciatica
by Debra Wood, RN
Modifying activities and learning techniques to decrease stress on the back are important to resolving or controlling low back pain and sciatica. Since back pain tends to recur, lifestyle changes should become a way of life if you hope to avoid future episodes.
General Guidelines for Managing Low Back Pain and Sciatica
Alter Your Activities
Prolonged bed rest is usually not advised. Bed rest can weaken muscles and slow recovery. In most cases, your doctor will recommend that you continue normal activities as much as is tolerated. Stay active within the limits of your pain and avoid activities that worsen the pain.
Guidelines for activity include:
Practice Good Posture
Poor posture and slouching can put more pressure on your lower back. Stand and sit straight, and avoid sitting up in bed.
Follow a Home Exercise Program
Exercises to stretch and strengthen the back and stomach muscles should be done regularly. You may also want to include balance exercises that work the trunk muscles.
A low-impact aerobic program will further improve your physical fitness and help you maintain a healthy weight. Choose exercises that you enjoy and that you can do on a routine basis. Activities that are back-friendly include walking, swimming, or biking. Exercise also can help you manage stress. Check with your doctor before starting any exercise program. The 2008 USDA Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report recommends at minimum 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, and strengthening exercises at least 2 days a week.
Lose Weight If You Are Overweight
Maintenance of good weight is important for your overall health. While scientific evidence is inconclusive as to how much obesity contributes to back pain in general, extra pounds can increase pressure on the spinal muscles and discs. Follow the dietary and exercise plan recommended by your doctor. To lose weight, you have to consume fewer calories than you expend. To maintain a healthy weight, eat an equal number of calories to those you expend. Even more exercise than minimum recommendations may be required to lose weight.
If You Smoke, Quit
Smoking may contribute to degeneration of the discs in the spine. Also, smokers risk possible re-injury to the back during a coughing attack. Smoking can adversely affect healing if you are having back surgery. To heal properly, you should quit smoking 2 weeks before a spinal fusion and stay tobacco-free for 6 months afterwards.
Stress can increase muscle tension. Take time out to relax, exercise, and practice relaxation techniques. If you need support or assistance in reducing stress, you may want to try some of the following techniques:
Modify Your Environment
Certain changes to your workspace, attire, and home can reduce the stress on your back. Tips include:
Some people find that an adjustable mattress is helpful because it allows them to change firmness depending on how their back feels on any given night. Others, especially those who sleep on their sides, find that firm foam mattresses are better for them than conventional mattresses. Finding the best mattress is individual—what works best for one patient may not be good for another.
While some people think that using shoe inserts will prevent back pain, so far there's not a lot of evidence to support this.
When to Contact Your Doctor
More serious symptoms associated with back pain that may require immediate medical attention include:
Acute low back pain. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114958/Acute-low-back-pain. Updated August 12, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2016.
Chronic low back pain. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed... Updated August 18, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2016.
Chuter V, Spink M, Searle A, et al. The effectiveness of shoe insoles for the prevention and treatment of low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Musculoskel Disord. 2014;15(1):140-148.
Hill JJ and Keating JL. Daily exercises and education for preventing low back pain in children: cluster randomized controlled trial. Phys Ther. 2015;95(4):507-516.
Natour J, Cazotti Lde A, Ribeiro LH, et al. Pilates improving pain, function and quality of life in patients with chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Clin Rehabil. 2015;29(1):59-68.
Pain. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated November 3, 2015. Accessed December 16, 2015.
Physical activity guidelines for Americans. US Department of Health and Human Services.
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed December 16, 2015.
Physician quality reporting system 2011 quality measures. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated August 19, 2014. Accessed December 16, 2015.
Schaafsma FG, Whelan K, van der Beek AJ, et al. Physical conditioning as part of a return to work strategy to reduce sickness absence for workers with back pain. Cochrane Databse Syst Rev. 2013;8:CD001822.
Sciatica. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115166/Sciatica. Updated February 8, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2016.
2/17/2009 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.... Bigos SJ, Holland J, et al. High-quality controlled trials on preventing episodes of back problems: systematic literature review in working-age adults. Spine J. 2009;9:147-168.
2/24/2009 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.... Sahar T, Cohen M, et al. Insoles for prevention and treatment of back pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;(1):CD005275.
11/29/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.... Gatti R, Faccendini S, et al. Efficacy of trunk balance exercises for individuals with chronic low back pain: a randomized clinical trial. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2011;41(8):542-552.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Laura Lei-Rivera, DPT
Last Updated: 8/9/2017
EBSCO Information Services is fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
To send comments or feedback to our Editorial Team regarding the content please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our Health Library Support team will respond to your email request within 2 business days.