Whether you feel it as sudden sharp jabs or a constant dull ache that lasts for anything from a few days to a few weeks, back pain is as debilitating as it is common. Of all back pains, lower back pain is the most common one. If you ignore the pain, thinking it’s due to a hectic work life or general fatigue, you may be overlooking some scary causes of back pain. Sometimes, you may even pop pills, but having painkillers on a long-term basis can leave you with ulcers, liver and kidney damage, and trouble with blood clotting.1 More harmful are the muscle relaxants and narcotic analgesics often prescribed for chronic pain, which can be addictive.2 While there is no standardized therapy for all patients, explore these alternative treatments for relief from back pain and to strengthen your back against future injuries.
1. Cold Therapy
You feel pain because nociceptors, or the pain receptors across your body, carry pain signals to your brain. Cryotherapy (cryo = cold) with ice packs, ice massage, or cold whirlpool treatment – where you get into a bathtub with cold water that is constantly agitated by a motor – brings down the temperature of your skin and tissues lying 2–4 cm beneath it. As a result, the temperature falls below what can activate the pain receptors in the tissue and it also lowers the speed with which nerves conduct the pain signal. As a result, it has an anesthetic-like effect on the area of pain – remember how holding an ice pack on your skin for a few minutes makes it numb? The drop in temperature also decreases tissue metabolism, blood flow, inflammation, and muscle spasm.
Caution: Don’t apply the ice directly on your skin. It could give you frostbite or even damage your nerves and tissues.
If you have suddenly received an injury, use ice packs or ice massage therapy for both the affected bone and surrounding ligaments and tendons to reduce the pain quickly.3 While this method is helpful in reducing the pain, it can slow down wound healing.
2. Massage Therapy
Do you find relief when someone massages your back when you are suffering from one of those bouts of severe pain? A study showed that when adults suffering from low back pain for at least 6 months were given 30-min massage therapy twice a week for 5 weeks, they reported less pain, less depression and anxiety, and better sleep. This is because they now had more mood-lifting hormones, serotonin and dopamine, than the stress hormone cortisol. Since cortisol also increases muscle tension in the back, they could now bend forward more easily.4
Go for a 30-min massage twice a week. Combine it with exercises like knee roll and back extension.
It’s a good way to relieve your sub-acute (lasting 4–12 weeks) and chronic (lasting longer than 12 weeks) non-speciﬁc low back pain, especially when combined with exercises and education. But be warned that its effect won’t last very long.5 However, it’s certainly better than muscle relaxation treatments.6
Get a good masseuse to massage your back using massage oil, with gentle strokes from the buttocks to the spine. Depending on the severity of the pain, you can adjust the movements – start with slow movements for a soothing experience and then increase the intensity and speed according to the stimulation required.
If you are not mortally scared of needles, try acupuncture, a traditional Chinese remedy, which is frequently used to treat back pain. It involves the insertion of needles into key points of your body to correct the flow of chi, or energy, in your body to help relieve lower back pain.
A study was done to examine the immediate effect of single acupuncture stimulation in patients with low back pain. The result showed that acupuncture at the most painful point of the back provided immediate relief from lower back pain.7
A review of all studies and research done on the effectiveness of acupuncture in alleviating low back pain shows that whether used alone or along with conventional therapy, acupuncture can provide short-term improvements in pain and function for chronic lower back pain.8
4. Chiropractic Therapy
Chiropractic treatment can also be an instant way to work out the kinks in your back and instantly ease the pain. In fact, a study finds that it is more effective than hospital outpatient management for patients with severe or chronic back pain. Its long-term effects will become evident when you go for a follow-up. A study reports 7% improvement in the Oswestry disability index – a questionnaire to evaluate a patient’s disability due to back pain – in a span of a couple of years.9
5. Salt Therapy
Mix some epsom salt into your bath water along with essential oils like rosewood, patchouli, lavender, and ylang ylang.
Bath salts work too, especially epsom salt, which is a compound of magnesium and sulfur, both of which are easily absorbed into the body. When you mix it in your bath water, with a few drops of essential oils like rosewood, patchouli, lavender, or ylang ylang oil,10 the heat produced can improve blood circulation. There is also an increased absorption of the anti-inflammatory magnesium, which is required in about 300 enzyme systems in your body that regulate many biochemical reactions. Such a salt bath relaxes muscle spasms, soothes your nerves, and has pain-relieving effects.11
6. Herbal Remedies
You do, of course, know that certain herbs are natural painkillers. Some of those are good for back pain too.
- Comfrey root extract ointment reduces acute back pain remarkably and very fast.12
- Devil’s claw or its active ingredient harpagoside, in a daily oral dose of 50 mg or 100 mg, respectively, reduces back pain effectively.13
- White willow bark or its active ingredient salicin, in a daily oral dose of 120 mg or 240 mg, respectively, provides short-term improvements to back pain.
- Cayenne, tested as various topical preparations applied to the skin, appeared to reduce back pain as well.14
- A patented composition of oregano oil, laurel oil, and myrtle oil can alleviate pain and discomfort associated with neck and back pains and strains.15
- Hops, wood betony, and passionflower are also considered good for back pain.16
7. Exercise Therapy
Exercises work the muscles of your back to help strengthen it and provide more support to the spine. Recent research has focused on using muscle-specific exercise training for the muscles surrounding the spine in cases of chronic low back pain, sponydolysis, and spondylolisthesis. These are the deep abdominal muscles and lumbar multifidus muscles which provide dynamic stability and fine control to the lumbar spine.
A study found that when back pain patients underwent a 10‐week specific exercise treatment of these muscles, they could hold static postures and perform tasks that previously aggravated the pain. This treatment worked much better than other commonly prescribed conservative treatment.17.
Some exercises that can help ease back pain quickly are knee rolls and back extensions.
- Knee roll: Lie on your back with your knees bent. Roll them to one side, followed by your pelvis, keeping both shoulders on the floor. Repeat on the other side.
- Back extensions: Lie on your stomach and then arch your back and hold this position for 5–10 seconds.
While poses like cobra, cat, bridge, and triangle all stretch the back, yoga trapeze provides your spine traction.
Whether you are looking for a cure for your back pain or looking to prevent it, yoga is a cost-effective and safe option. It can reduce the severity of chronic low back pain and disability. It can also improve your serotonin levels, keeping you mentally healthy and giving you better sleep.18 Iyengar yoga has been seen to even reduce the use of pain medication.19
Some of the popular yoga asanas prescribed for back pain are
- Trikonasana or triangle pose
- Bhujangasana or cobra pose
- Marjarasana or cat pose
- Setu Bandhasana or bridge pose
You can even try yoga trapeze for back pain. The yoga trapeze most closely resembles a swing. It can be used as an aid to perform certain postures or asanas that strengthen your core. You can hang off it like a trapeze artist, giving yourself a full body workout.
9. Fixing The Posture
Since prevention is way better than cure, the best way to avoid getting back pain is improving your posture while standing, sitting, and even sleeping.
- While standing: Keep your back erect to help your muscles support your spine better and avoid lower back pain.
- While sitting: Select a chair which provides adequate lumbar support and sit on it in an erect posture while working or relaxing. This is essential in a desk job so as to not damage your back from long hours of sitting at office.
- While lying down: Sleep on your back or on sides. Put a pillow between your knees when you sleep on one side. Avoiding sleeping on your stomach.
Remember that these techniques will help you overcome the pain and function better, but in the short term. The onus is on you to strengthen your back with exercises and yoga asanas and correct your posture so that there are fewer chances of back pain in the future.
|↑1||Side Effects of Painkillers. Cancer Research UK.|
|↑2||Fields, Howard L. “The doctor’s dilemma: opiate analgesics and chronic pain.” Neuron 69, no. 4 (2011): 591-594.|
|↑3||Nadler, Scott F., Kurt Weingand, and Roger J. Kruse. “The physiologic basis and clinical applications of cryotherapy and thermotherapy for the pain practitioner.” Pain physician 7, no. 3 (2004): 395-400.|
|↑4||Hernandez-Reif, Maria, Tiffany Field, Josh Krasnegor, and Hillary Theakston. “Lower back pain is reduced and range of motion increased after massage therapy.” International Journal of Neuroscience 106, no. 3-4 (2001): 131-145.|
|↑5||Furlan, Andrea D., Mario Giraldo, Amanda Baskwill, Emma Irvin, and Marta Imamura. “Massage for low‐back pain.” The Cochrane Library (2015).|
|↑6||Kumar, Saravana, Kate Beaton, and Tricia Hughes. “The effectiveness of massage therapy for the treatment of nonspecific low back pain: a systematic review of systematic reviews.” Int J Gen Med 6 (2013): 733-741.|
|↑7||Inoue, Motohiro, Hiroshi Kitakoji, Naoto Ishizaki, Munenori Tawa, Tadashi Yano, Yasukazu Katsumi, and Kenji Kawakita. “Relief of low back pain immediately after acupuncture treatment–a randomised, placebo controlled trial.” Acupuncture in Medicine 24, no. 3 (2006): 103-108.|
|↑8||Liu, Lizhou, Margot Skinner, Suzanne McDonough, Leon Mabire, and George David Baxter. “Acupuncture for low back pain: an overview of systematic reviews.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2015 (2015).|
|↑9||Meade, Thomas W., Sandra Dyer, Wendy Browne, Joy Townsend, and A. O. Frank. “Low back pain of mechanical origin: randomised comparison of chiropractic and hospital outpatient treatment.” Bmj 300, no. 6737 (1990): 1431-1437.|
|↑10||McLean, Linsey. “Therapeutic bath salts and method of use.” U.S. Patent 5,958,462, issued September 28, 1999.|
|↑11, ↑15, ↑16||Cappello, John V., and Lawrence Durst. “Herbal enhanced analgesic formulations.” U.S. Patent Application 12/804,972, filed August 3, 2010.|
|↑12||Giannetti, Bruno Massimo, Christiane Staiger, Michael Bulitta, and Hans-Georg Predel. “Efficacy and safety of a Comfrey root extract ointment in the treatment of acute upper or low back pain: results of a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled, multi-centre trial.” British journal of sports medicine (2009).|
|↑13, ↑14||Gagnier, Joel J., Maurits W. van Tulder, Brian Berman, and Claire Bombardier. “Herbal medicine for low back pain: a Cochrane review.” Spine 32, no. 1 (2007): 82-92.|
|↑17||O’Sullivan, Peter B., Grad Dip Manip Phyty, Lance T. Twomey, and Garry T. Allison. “Evaluation of specific stabilizing exercise in the treatment of chronic low back pain with radiologic diagnosis of spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis.” Spine 22, no. 24 (1997): 2959-2967|
|↑18||Chang, Douglas G., Jacquelyn A. Holt, Marisa Sklar, and Erik J. Groessl. “Yoga as a treatment for chronic low back pain: A systematic review of the literature.” Journal of orthopedics & rheumatology 3, no. 1 (2016): 1.|
|↑19||Williams, Kimberly, Christiaan Abildso, Lois Steinberg, Edward Doyle, Beverly Epstein, David Smith, Gerry Hobbs, Richard Gross, George Kelley, and Linda Cooper. “Evaluation of the effectiveness and efficacy of Iyengar yoga therapy on chronic low back pain.” Spine 34, no. 19 (2009): 2066.|