One minute I was hefting a too-heavy basket of wet laundry, and the next I was one of the 31 million Americans dealing with lower back pain. I took some ibuprofen, alternated ice and heat packs and gave myself a day off my feet, but when my back still hurt a couple days later, I went to my doctor for help. Instead of prescribing pain pills and muscle relaxers though, she prescribed a massage, acupuncture and twice-a-week yoga classes. Before long, my back felt better.
Fewer doctors are prescribing opioid-based medications for low back pain these days. While they’re great for alleviating severe discomfort during the first few days of a back injury, they have too many side effects to be used long-term and they don’t treat the underlying causes of low back pain. In fact, new guidelines from the American College of Physicians recommend first treating low back pain with non-drug therapies such as acupuncture, spinal manipulation, massage and exercise, and only using opiods as a last resort.
The National Institutes of Health say that most cases are mechanical, which means one or more of the back’s structural components — the spine, muscles, intervertebral discs and/or nerves — don’t fit together properly or move the way they’re supposed to. Most backaches heal on their own within a few days or weeks without any medical care at all. When pain lasts longer than that though, you might need to see a healthcare provider, like a chiropractor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, physical therapist or yoga instructor.
Sara Hopkins, ND, is a doctor of naturopathy in Portland, OR. She says, “I see at least a few patients every week for back pain. Once we relieve the initial pain with heat, acupuncture and/or massage, we create an action plan that addresses the underlying problem. Many times, weak stabilizing muscles such as the abdominal core muscles are the culprits. When we prescribe exercise and movement to strengthen the core muscles in the abdomen, as well as the hips, back and pelvis, and enable the spine and back to move freely, we not only solve the back problem that brought the patient in for care, we prevent future back problems too.”
6 Natural Techniques for Relief from Low Back Pain
Do natural techniques work for resolving low back pain? Studies resoundingly say yes.
1. Massage Therapy
Massage therapy manually manipulates soft body tissues including muscles, connective tissues, tendons and ligaments to help them relax. There are many different types of massage therapy ranging from relaxing Swedish massage to restorative deep-tissue massage. Studies show that massage therapy can help reduce low back pain and improve function more rapidly than traditional medical care.
Acupuncture is a technique used in traditional Chinese medicine in which specific energy points on the body are stimulated, usually by inserting thin needles into the skin. Researchers found that acupuncture did a better job of relieving chronic back pain than traditional medical care. The American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians also recommends acupuncture for patients with chronic low back pain
3. Physical Therapy
Physical therapy uses a variety of specialized exercises, equipment and techniques along with education to help patients improve their movement and functional ability. Studies indicate that exercise combined with education (which is what physical therapy is all about) on proper body dynamics works as well or better than traditional medical treatment, both for treating low back pain and preventing recurrences.
Physical therapy is especially effective when patients access care early in their back pain episode. With many insurance plans, patients don’t even need to see a doctor before starting physical therapy for musculoskeletal pain problems. Studies indicate that seeing a physical therapist first (instead of, say, your family physician) can significantly lower your healthcare costs.
4. Spinal Manipulation
Spinal manipulation is a hands-on technique used by Doctors of Chiropractic and Doctors of Osteopathy to treat back pain. They apply force, or gentle thrusts, to the spinal joints in the affected area to restore structural integrity and improve the body’s ability to heal. A 2011 review of 26 clinical trials determined that spinal manipulation is as effective as other interventions for reducing back pain and improving function.
Yoga is often described as a spiritual or exercise practice but studies show that it’s also powerful medicine. When patients with low back pain take part in as few as one to two yoga sessions per week, they see significant improvement in their chronic back pain problems.
6. Tai Chi
To determine the effect of tai chi training on chronic low back pain researchers studied 160 sufferers, ages 18 and 70 years, living in Sydney, Australia. A tai chai training program consisting of 18 40-minute sessions over a 10-week period was administered with positive results. All 160 study participants reported reduced “bothersome back symptoms” and “reduced pain intensity” leading researchers to conclude that tai chi is a safe and effective intervention for those experiencing chronic low back pain. The American College of Physicians also recently updated its clinical guidelines for non-invasive low back pain treatments to include tai chi.
Which Natural Technique to Try First?
That depends on what your insurance policy covers, the type of alternative healthcare providers that are available in your area and, of course, what you can afford. Start with:
- Asking your physician which therapies you should try.
- Calling your insurance provider to find out which therapies and providers your policy covers.
Also get recommendations from your friends, family and physician for good chiropractors, massage and physical therapists, acupuncturists and yoga instructors too.