Bed rest is now understood to have a very limited role in healing sore backs. In very small doses, bed rest can give you a break when standing or sitting causes severe pain. Too much may actually make back pain worse. If you absolutely have no choice but to spend a day or two on bed rest there are some key factors to doing it right.
Doing It Right:
To get the most from staying in bed, limit the time you are laying down to a few hours at a stretch and do not stay in bed for more than one or two days at most. Ice your back often, at least once an hour for 15 minutes or so, to reduce or eliminate the inflammatory response that has resulted in the pain you are on bed rest for. To ease the strain on your back while resting, try putting pillows under your head, although do not prop your head up so high it strains your back. Put more pillows between your knees if you are laying on your side. If you are laying on your back, put pillows under your knees to keep them bent and reduce back pressure. Avoid laying on your stomach, but if you must then place a pillow or two under your hips taking the arch out of your back and removing the pressure gravity would place on it. These positions reduce the forces that the different ways to lay down can impose on the soft tissues of the back. The tissues most helped by supporting these positions with pillows as described are the discs, ligaments and muscles.
The Wrong Approach:
Not only is an extended period of bed rest not helpful for back pain, it may be hurtful as it may prolong your recovery or leave you in worse pain. Short term, while a little bed rest may allow your back to feel a little better, too much time in bed can create other health concerns in addition to your back pain. First, muscles may lose conditioning and tone leaving you substantially more prone to re-injury. Additionally, complications of prolonged bed rest can include constipation (which may be a pain medication problem that is now compounded by bed rest) and an increased risk of developing blood clots in the veins of your pelvis and legs, which can be life threatening. Being on prolonged bed rest may also result in depression, as well as an increased sense of physical weakness and malaise.
Activity is Best:
Many studies suggest that a better alternative to bed rest is, in fact, an early return to normal activities, with periodic rest as needed. When handled this way, back pain tends to respond better than it does with prolonged rest for an extended period of time.
While excessive wear and tear on the back is thought to have a role in the development of herniated discs, degenerative discs and back pain, most experts believe that it is important to stay active even if your back hurts. When workers on medical leave due to low back pain were told to stay active, it was found that they had an increased chance of returning to work and returned to work sooner.[i]
Chiropractic Care Even Better:
The type of exercise you choose to do while dealing with back pain is very important. Always check with your Chiropractor to ascertain the best exercise to undertake for your condition. Those with back pain, for instance, may not want to do activities that compress the spine like jogging or high impact aerobics classes. Low-impact activities such as elliptical machines, stationary bikes or swimming may help keep joints in the back moving without putting an unnecessary strain on them. Gentle appropriate stretching guided by your chiropractor who understands your condition may also be beneficial.
Chiropractors are generally quick to encourage staying active with back pain and will often prescribe specific home exercises tailored to helping with a faster recovery from back pain. Chiropractic patients generally return to work faster and are less likely to have re-injury because of the focus placed on both mechanics and activity. Chiropractors may not use bed rest as much as medical doctors because they recognize it may complicate recovery. They will, however, generally stress the importance of early and safe return to activities, while identifying any necessary restrictions.