Back Pain Relief

Taking a natural approach lets you support your body’s power to heal itself.

by Lisa James

September 2012

For the Rev. Fred Valdes, back pain stemming from an arthritic spine was simply a fact of life. “I hurt and I accepted it as it was,” says the 83-year-old Long Island, New York, counselor.

Many Americans know the feeling. Back-related distress is common—and costly. The Institute of Medicine reports that low back pain alone accounts for up to $54 billion a year.

Deeper Issues

The back’s centerpiece, the spine, consists of bones called vertebrae separated by fiberous discs. This gives the back flexibility while protecting the spinal cord that runs through the center.

Discs can bulge out from their spaces in the spine or herniate, a crack in the disc’s outer layer allowing the gel-like inner cartilage to protrude. The spine is also prone to stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that puts pressure on the cord and its attached nerve roots.

Being sedentary can trigger back pain. “We weren’t designed to sit looking at computer screens for hours,” says Vijay Vad, MD, affiliated with the Hospital for Special Surgery and Weill Medical College of Cornell University, both in New York City, and author of Back Rx (Penguin, www.vijayvad.com). He says too much sitting is one reason plane travel can set off back problems. In addition, obesity can put “crazy amounts of stress on the discs.”

Back pain is more than bad mechanics. “The brain and spinal cord is the processing unit that oversees all the other functions of the body,” says chiropractor Steven Lindner, DC, MSACN, CNS, who teaches at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and practices in Hicksville, New York (www.nutritionchirodoc.com). “All stressors, physical, emotional and chemical, are processed through the spinal cord. It’s like the electrical circuitry in your home; place too much stress on the system and it blows a fuse.”

“In Eastern medicine, organ systems reflect one’s emotions,” says integrative acupuncturist Winifred Boyd, MS, Dipl, LAc, RM, of Glen Head, New York. “If someone is always angry we would look at the liver; if the liver is out of balance that can weaken the tendons and ligaments, which can result in bulging or herniated discs.” What’s more, “someone who feels unsupported in their lives may present with back pain.”

As a result, back troubles need to be dealt with on several levels. “Pain is an outward presentation of an underlying issue. We address the branch, the symptom, while trying to find the root, the underlying cause,” says Boyd.

Whole-Person Approaches

The first step to finding back pain relief is to undergo a professional evaluation that includes a complete medical history. Imaging studies may be ordered, although Vad is “a big opponent of doing X-rays for back pain unless you have red flags, such as previous trauma or a history of smoking [to check for cancer that has spread to the spine; smoking also weakens the spinal components]. The chance of an X-ray showing something is so low.” Lindner does bloodwork to check for inflammatory factors and a foot scan, saying, “If there’s an alignment issue with the feet, that affects everything above.” Boyd is also concerned with proper body alignment, including factors such as carrying a large bag on one shoulder or a recent change in shoes. “I have to stretch you to find where you’re tight,” Boyd adds. “That not only helps you relax but lets me ascertain where there are inconsistencies in the skeletal system.”

Back problems can be linked to pain elsewhere. Nicole Galluzzo, 20, of Glen Head, had headaches so severe her doctor wanted to put her on medication. But Galluzzo, a gymnast, and her parents were wary, so she went to Boyd. “The intention was to get rid of the headaches but she was helping me stretch out my back and be more flexible,” Galluzzo says. “My headaches started to go away and I wasn’t feeling any more pain in my back.”

Vad notes that because 80% of back injuries heal on their own within two months he generally recommends minimal intervention to start. “There’s no such thing as back surgery, there’s only your first back surgery,” he says, although it may be indicated if there is progressive weakness or loss of bowel or bladder control.

Physical activity is one conservative approach. Vad says he and his colleagues have presented study data “showing that a home exercise program is linked to a good outcome. It could be as simple as walking [for disc problems] or biking [for stenosis] 30 minutes a day or getting up from a chair every 30 minutes for 30 seconds to take the load off the discs.”

Yoga has shown an ability to help ease back pain (Journal of Pain 1/12, Complementary Therapies in Medicine 6/12), and may help prevent it from recurring. (Find a instructor who has worked with back pain patients.)

“I may not recommend exercise right away,” says Boyd. “One person may need to rest a day before going back to exercise, someone else may need a week or two off.” She also warns, “People are tempted to do what they did before. They shouldn’t—the body is still healing.” Vad says, “If your pain level spikes you’re doing something wrong. ‘No pain, no gain’ is a fallacy.”

Chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture can help correct back problems gently. Valdes credits his visits to Lindner with keeping him pain-free. “Some people go and then they wait until something happens again. I go every two weeks, once a week if I need it,” he says. “The body is a great healing system on its own, but sometimes it needs a nudge,” says Boyd. But “half the work is mine, half is the patient’s” in terms of making necessary lifestyle changes.

Sometimes, the needed adjustment is mental. Lindner says, “Thoughts are much more powerful than people recognize. People who are more optimistic heal quicker.” Vad notes depression is common among people with back pain and that the two conditions “can each play off each other.”

Many people don’t realize that diet can play a role in back pain. Lindner says, “There’s a mechanical component to arthritis and pain, but there’s also a chemical component. We can use food to regulate the chemical process of inflammation.” He recommends eating colorful produce, which contains antioxidants and other phytonutrients. “We used to think that getting adjustments keeps you healthy by keeping your spine healthy. Now we know that getting adjustments improve your body’s antioxidant status.”

Vad says, “I think vitamin D plays a huge role in back pain. D3 deficiency is a big public health issue.” He also recommends fish oil and curcumin. Lindner suggests taking fish oil with vitamin E as a antioxidant, along with vitamin D, ginger, boswellia and bioflavonoids. Many people take glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM to ease arthritic aches of all kinds.

Finding lasting back pain relief requires patience and the willingness to explore all options. “It can really get you down,” Vad says. “The more positive you are the better the chances are that you will beat it.”

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