It strikes without warning: a dull ache or a shooting pain that can last for a few days or persist for months. Maybe you lifted something heavy. Maybe you sat at your desk too long. Or maybe it seems to occur for no reason at all.
Women: Pay attention, too
Although back pain is often considered a guy’s problem, men and women are equally susceptible; it’s estimated that the 100 million workdays lost in this country every year to back pain are divided equally between the sexes (American Journal of Public Health, 1999, vol. 89, no. 7). We’re talking about back pain, and chances are, sooner or later, you are going to have it—four out of five adults experience back pain at some point in their lives. And even though it is classically associated with men, gender isn’t a determining factor. Back pain can be caused by muscle strains and spasms, as well as by more serious degenerative conditions, such as osteoarthritis, spinal degeneration, and bone disease. Viral infections, skeletal irregularities, obesity, smoking, stress, poor posture, fibromyalgia, and tumors can all cause or contribute to back pain.
The bad news is that if you have a sore back, there’s not always a proven method to make it feel better. In fact, some of the most historically common back-pain treatments are now thought to be largely ineffective, if not detrimental. Surgery for back pain, for example, is the third-most frequent surgical procedure in the country, yet many doctors now suggest that it is appropriate only in a small number of cases. And although doctors once assigned back-pain sufferers to their beds, studies suggest that prolonged bed rest may actually delay recovery (New England Journal of Medicine, 1995, vol. 332, no. 6).
The good news is that in most cases the body heals itself. Still, a host of natural treatments may help speed your recovery from back pain or prevent it in the first place. Here are six natural ways to keep your back happy and healthy.
Clean up your lifestyle
Back pain is often avoidable, even when it seems to sneak up on you. An overall healthy lifestyle is considered a major defense against back pain, which is why doctors recommend that men maintain a thoughtful diet, keep track of any diabetic tendencies, and control weight gain. Quitting smoking is an important step toward prevention because smoking reduces blood flow to the lower spine and causes spinal discs to deteriorate.
Maintaining a regular schedule of low-impact exercises and stretching, such as speed walking, swimming, bike riding, yoga, and Pilates, is another way to sidestep back pain. Although many men prefer high-impact exercises such as long-distance running or team sports, according to Jerome F. McAndrews, DC, national spokesman for the American Chiropractic Association in Arlington, Virginia, these activities can actually stress your back more if not accompanied by proper conditioning and stretching.
Slight improvements in your home and workplace can help your back, too. For example, reorganizing your work setup to reduce repetitive movements and uncomfortable postures can be beneficial. When seated, keep your shoulders back, avoid slouching, rest your feet on a low stool, and place a pillow in the small of your back. Take at least 30 seconds every 15 minutes to stretch and move around. And if your job involves lifting heavy objects, bend with your knees and keep your head forward. Of course, if something is too heavy, don’t lift it. “Increase your body awareness,” adds certified massage therapist Rick Halle-Podell, owner of Massage Therapy of Oak Park in Illinois. “Start noticing when your back hurts, and try and figure out if certain activities are causing that back pain.”
Because the majority of back-pain episodes improve on their own, one of the most popular recommendations doctors make is self-treatment. One common home remedy is applying cold compresses several times a day for two to three days, then switching to hot pads on the sore area for brief periods to relax muscles. Gentle exercise, such as stretching, swimming, walking, yoga, and movement therapy, might also speed recovery. You can even try self-massage, says Halle-Podell: Lie on the floor or lean against a wall with a tennis ball between your shoulder blades and gently rub the ball against your muscles.
If the pain has not subsided after 72 hours of self-care, or if it is accompanied by a prolonged fever, pain in the legs or abdomen, or loss of bladder control, it’s time to call the doctor.
Consider chiropractic care
Chiropractic care involves small amounts of force to adjust spinal joints and restore back mobility. Once seen as unconventional, today this spinal manipulation is one of the most accepted treatments for back pain.
How does chiropractic work? “We are dealing with what we call dynamic equilibrium,” says McAndrews, who compares the back to a mobile hanging from a ceiling: It’s movable but stationary, with each spinal joint balancing out the rest. If one joint becomes immobile, the balance will shift, leading to back pain. By restoring healthy movement to back joints, chiropractors allow the rest of a person’s musculoskeletal system to return to its normal position. Depending on the severity of the case, spinal readjustment may take several chiropractic visits.
Make time for acupuncture
The ancient science of acupuncture to treat everything from back pain to migraines is gaining mainstream appeal. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health determined that medical acupuncture may be a useful treatment for back pain (Acupuncture, 1997, vol. 15, no. 5). Medical acupuncturists insert needles into precise points in the body to access its energy system and enable innate healing processes.
“The National Institutes of Health determined that medical acupuncture may be a useful treatment for back pain.” Not only can it help treat back pain, but medical acupuncture also releases your body’s endorphins, or natural painkillers, says Marshall H. Sager, DO, a board-certified physician acupuncturist in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, and former president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. “Instead of taking drugs orally, you are producing them naturally, and you are able to modulate the pain,” says Sager. Guys squeamish around needles don’t need to fear; these hair-width needles hardly hurt at all.
American Academy of Medical Acupuncture
The latest information on medical acupuncture, as well as a database for finding a local acupuncturist.
American Chiropractic Association
The nation’s largest chiropractic association; includes information on how to find a qualified chiropractor.
American Massage Therapy Association
Information on massage therapy, as well as links to massage therapists.
Information created by spine physicians to help patients understand, prevent, and seek treatment for back pain.
Try massage therapy
Another popular, noninvasive back-pain treatment is massage therapy, which helps to relieve stress and strain from muscles and connective tissues using pressure, kneading, lifting strokes, and other hand techniques. “Massage therapy helps to melt the tissues that may be stuck or tight,” says Halle-Podell. “One of the main benefits is that massage increases the blood circulation to the area, helping to bring nutrients to the region, as well as taking away waste products.”
A wide variety of massage therapy techniques exist. One thing to remember is that pain with massage is not always good, says Halle-Podell. “You don’t need to have an area whaled upon in order to get relief.”
Take an anger inventory
Believe it or not, some back pain is caused by suppressed anger and emotional stress, according to Harry Adelson, ND, director of Docere Clinics in Salt Lake City and a specialist in naturopathic pain management. “In order to keep [angry] thoughts in your subconscious, you’ll create pain in your body to distract yourself from thinking of these thoughts,” explains Adelson.
John Sarno, MD, professor of rehabilitation medicine at New York University School of Medicine, identifies storing anger in this way as tension myositis syndrome. To treat the condition, Adelson suggests keeping an anger inventory, a list of things you may not initially realize are a source of distress. By being conscious of your emotions, you help your body avoid unnecessary stress and back pain.
Since writing this story, freelance writer Joel Warner now takes regular breaks from typing on his computer to get up, stretch his back, and enjoy his view of the Rocky Mountains.