Back Pain Treatments


For most instances of back pain, self-care and over-the-counter (OTC) medications are all that are needed. If your back pain is caused by arthritis, your treatment plan will follow that for the specific type of arthritis.


Analgesics are drugs that relieve pain, but not inflammation. The most common over-the-counter analgesic is acetaminophen. These drugs are available as pills or topicals (creams, gels, patches, rubs or sprays). Topical analgesics may contain other ingredients as well as acetaminophen, and include one of the following:

  • salicylates, such as aspirin, that inhibit pain and inflammation by stimulating blood flow

  • counterirritants, such as menthol, oil of wintergreen, eucalyptus oil and/or camphor that cause feelings of cold or warmth that distract attention from the actual pain.

  • capsaicin, that works by reducing the amount of substance P, a chemical that sends pain signals to the brain.

Topical analgesics should not be used with heat therapy as this can cause burns. If necessary, the doctor may prescribe a stronger analgesic.


Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, help reduce inflammation and relieve pain. If necessary, the doctor may prescribe a stronger NSAID. The selective COX-2 inhibitor celecoxib may be safer for the stomach and less likely to cause ulcers than other NSAIDs. There are concerns about an increased risk of cardiovascular problems when taking NSAIDs. Let your doctor know if you have heart disease or high blood pressure before starting these medications, and talk with your doctor about all risks.

It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before using any OTC medicine for back pain.


People with sciatica, spinal stenosis or tumors within the spinal canal may require surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves. Otherwise, surgery is not usually recommended to relieve pain. A spine specialist can help you decide if a back operation is necessary.