Treat with cold. When back pain is severe, applying something cold can reduce pain and swelling by restricting the blood vessels and preventing fluids from leaking into the surrounding tissues. Cold therapy can also numb the affected nerves and distract your mind from the source of your pain.

But using ice for too long can cause stiffness, says Dr. Borenstein. He recommends using cold for pain associated with an injury and limiting it to the first 24 to 48 hours after pain starts. "As the process moves along, you'll want to switch to heat, which can increase blood flow to a certain degree and help movement."

Cold may be applied with a commercially available cold pack, or you can make your own cold pack by wrapping a towel around a bag of frozen peas or filling a sealable sandwich bag with ice. Judy Piette, a physical therapist in Atlanta, recommends a combination of heat and cold for her patients with painful muscle spasms. "I have them use heat for 20 minutes, do gentle exercises and then use ice for 20 minutes," she says.

For best results, and to avoid causing damage to the skin, apply cold packs for no more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and always put a towel between your skin and the cold pack.

If you have poor circulation, vasculitis or Raynaud's phenomenon, speak to your doctor or other health professional before applying cold therapy.

Get physical. If you have back pain or are recovering from surgery, physical therapy can help strengthen the muscles in your back to help relieve back pain or regain motion.

A physical therapist will tailor exercises to your particular condition.

Recent research shows that exercises designed to strengthen back muscles may be useful even if you don't have back pain yet. In a recent study of 50 women between the ages of 58 and 75, those who performed back-strengthening exercises suffered fewer painful fractures of the vertebrae than women who didn't do the exercises.

Work out in water. You know how good it feels to soak in warm water, especially when your back is aching. It turns out that warm water may also be a good place to stretch and strengthen your back muscles.

By allowing your muscles to relax, warm water provides an excellent environment for exercise – even for those who have difficulty exercising on dry land. Water acts as resistance to help build muscle strength, and the buoyancy makes it feel easier and more comfortable to exercise.

A  study by Japanese researchers shows that exercise, whether on land or in water, decreases pain levels, increases the body's production of inflammation-fighting hormones and decreases anxiety, which can exacerbate back pain.

To get a good full-body workout in the water, you'll need access to a heated pool. You can do warm-water exercise on a smaller scale in your own tub, spa or whirlpool bath.

Try a massage. Who couldn't benefit from a good back rub? Massage can relax tight, painful muscles, making movement easier. It also relieves stress, and is one of the most widely-used – and perhaps most useful – therapies for back pain.

In a study by researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine, chronic back-pain patients who received two 30-minute massage sessions per week for five weeks reported less pain, anxiety, depression and better sleep than a control group. They also demonstrated better low-back flexibility and had higher levels of the pain-relieving hormones, serotonin and dopamine.

When most people think of massage, they think of Swedish massage, a full-body treatment that involves kneading the top layers of muscles through a layer of oil or lotion. But there are several other types of massage, including deep-tissue massage, neuromuscular massage and myofascial release.

Some massage therapists are trained in certain forms of massage. If you have a condition such as ankylosing spondylitis or osteoporosis of the spine, however, ask your doctor to refer you to a massage therapist who has experience working with your particular condition.