By Dr. Mercola
Up to 80 percent of the US population will experience back pain at some point during their lives. Most often, the problem is mechanical in nature:1 the result of poor posture, repetitive movements, or incorrect lifting, for instance (as opposed to resulting from injury, infection, or serious diseases, like cancer).
If you visit a conventional physician for back pain (which is actually the second most common reason for doctor visits, outnumbered only by upper respiratory infections), you’ll most likely be offered only a superficial treatment.
Pain-relieving drugs are among the most common treatment followed by steroid injections and even surgery. Along with being fraught with side effects, none of these solutions tend to lead to full recovery, leaving many patients still struggling with back pain, often chronically.
This is where the natural remedies that follow can be invaluable. Before you even consider drugs, injections, or surgery, give these 15 natural remedies for back pain a try.2
Try This First: 15 Tips for Natural Back Pain Relief
This list is in no way meant to be comprehensive and all inclusive, but merely therapies that I have encountered or personally used.
1. Chiropractic Care
Seeing a qualified chiropractor is a wise option if you suffer from any type of chronic pain, including back pain. One study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine even revealed that chiropractic care is often better than medication for treating musculoskeletal pain.3
2. Stretching, Especially the Egoscue Method
Participants who took 52-minute stretching classes (which emphasized trunk and leg stretches) received as much back-pain relief as those taking yoga classes.4 The way you stretch matters, however, and static stretching may actually lead to irritation and injury.
Another option is the Egoscue Method, which is a series of very specific posture stretches and special exercises tailored to each person's specific needs. Egoscue helps to restore muscular balance and skeletal alignment and is often used as a natural method of pain relief. Personally, this method worked well for me in eliminating pain I had when I got out of my chair or car.
3. Strength Training
A regular strength-training routine will help strengthen your back and core muscles, which is essential for both relieving pain and preventing injury.
4. Osteopathic Manipulation
Osteopathic manipulation, which may involve moving joints back into place, massaging soft tissue, and helping you relax stressed muscles, was found to reduce chronic low-back pain in a study of 455 people. Participants received eight weeks of either osteopathic manipulation, a sham treatment, or ultrasound therapy.
Sixty-three percent of those who'd had osteopathic manipulation reported a moderate improvement in their pain while half said they had a substantial improvement.5
5. Reduce Your Stress
People with persistent negative thoughts and anxiety are more likely to suffer from back pain.6 The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) borrows from the principles of acupuncture, in that it helps you balance out your subtle energy system.
It helps resolve underlying, often subconscious, negative emotions that may be exacerbating your physical pain. By stimulating (tapping) well-established acupuncture points with your fingertips, you rebalance your energy system, which tends to dissipate pain and relieve stress.
Meditation can be a powerful pain reliever. Among volunteers who had never meditated before, those who attended four 20-minute classes to learn a meditation technique called focused attention (a form of mindfulness meditation), experienced significant pain relief – a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness.7
Yoga, which is particularly useful for promoting flexibility and core muscles, has been proven to be beneficial if you suffer from back pain. People suffering from low-back pain who took one yoga class a week had greater improvements in function than those receiving medicine or physical therapy.8 The Yoga Journal has an online page demonstrating specific poses that may be helpful.9
Massage releases endorphins, which help induce relaxation and relieve pain. Massage therapy for 10 weeks offered greater back-pain relief than usual care, according to one study, and the benefits lasted at least six months.10
Acupuncture can be another useful approach, although in my experience requires a bit more time to achieve results. In one analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine,11 researchers concluded that acupuncture has a definite effect in reducing chronic pain, such as back pain and headaches – more so than standard pain treatment.
10. K-Laser Therapy
Several beneficial things happen during K-Laser treatment. First, infrared laser therapy treatment helps reduce pain, reduce inflammation, and enhance tissue healing—both in hard and soft tissues, including muscles, ligaments, or even bones.
These benefits are the result of enhanced microcirculation, as the treatment stimulates red blood cell flow in the treatment area. Venous and lymphatic return is also enhanced, as is oxygenation of those tissues.
Finally, the treatment stimulates the cytochrome oxidase enzyme in your cells' mitochondria. This is really one of the key discoveries in the whole science of laser therapy.
Specifically, injured cells are targeted because damaged cells are more readily accepting of photons of light, whereas healthy cells don't need this extra energy. As explained by Dr. Phil Harrington, who is an expert on the use of K-Laser therapy:
"By stimulating the cytochrome oxidase enzyme, we are utilizing that oxygen in the respiratory chain inside of the mitochondria, producing more ATP for that cell. So regardless of what kind of cell it is, it's going to function at a higher level."
The three infrared wavelengths of the K-Laser target water, hemoglobin, and the enzyme to most efficiently stimulate cellular metabolism. The K-Laser is unique in that it is the only Class 4 therapy laser that utilizes three infrared wavelengths that penetrate deep into the body to reach areas such as your spine and hip.
11. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Talking with a therapist, with a focus on changing your thoughts and behavior, helped relieve back pain after just six weeks. After one year, nearly 60 percent of those who received cognitive-behavioral therapy reported that their pain was gone (compared to 31 percent of those who did not receive therapy).12
12. Tai Chi
A form of Chinese martial arts, tai chi is an ancient form of self-defense that is said to support the balance of "yin and yang" in your body, thereby improving the flow of "qi," or life energy. Often described as "meditation in motion" or "moving meditation," the activity takes your body through a specific set of graceful movements. Your body is constantly in motion and each movement flows right into the next. A 10-week tai chi program has been found to improve pain and disability in people with persistent low-back pain.13
13. Physical Therapy
People who received physical therapy soon after an episode of back pain are less likely to require subsequent medical care than those who seek it at a later time.14
14. Comfrey Root
Comfrey, a perennial shrub, is traditionally used to reduce inflammation as well as heal pulled, sprained, or strained muscles and ligaments. Research shows that ointment containing comfrey extract may lower back pain significantly,15 although you shouldn’t use it longer than 10 days because it can lead to liver damage if used chronically.
15. Aquatic Therapy
Water therapy conducted in a pool is a gentle way to alleviate lower back pain. This is especially useful for people who are sedentary and pregnant women.
Don’t Blame Your Back Pain on the Weather
Does your back pain flare up when it’s hot or humid? New research found that weather parameters, including temperature, relative humidity, air pressure, and precipitation do not increase the risk of a low-back-pain episode.16 According to the study’s lead author:17
“Many patients believe that weather impacts their pain symptoms. However, there are few robust studies investigating weather and pain, specifically research that does not rely on patient recall of the weather… Our findings refute previously held beliefs that certain common weather conditions increase risk of lower back pain.”
So if the weather isn’t the problem, then what is? Poor posture and/or improper movement is to blame for most cases of back pain. Spending most of your day slouched behind a desk or on the couch is a surefire way to develop back pain. Sitting is also an independent risk factor of everything from diabetes to heart disease, and can even take years off your life—even if you exercise regularly! If you spend the majority of your day sitting like I do, then I could not encourage you more strongly to review this article on sitting and intermittent movement, which provides dozens of different mini exercises you can do to interrupt your sitting.
Even though I have always been very fit, I believe my chronic sitting caused me back pain, and these intermittent movement exercises have eliminated it. Proper posture is truly foundational for health and most who live in industrialized cultures have far from ideal posture. By understanding the functional biomechanics of your body, you can learn to optimize the way you move at all times. This in turn effectively prevents aches and pains from developing. An effective method to relearn proper posture is Foundation Training, developed by chiropractor Dr. Eric Goodman to address his own chronic back pain.
Please Beware of Conventional Back-Pain Treatments
Despite it being so common, few people—including specialists—have a clear understanding of how to treat back pain. If you have low back pain and see different specialists, you will get different tests: rheumatologists will order blood tests, neurologists will order nerve impulse tests, and surgeons will order MRIs and CT scans. But no matter what tests you get, you'll probably end up with a prescription for a painkiller and perhaps a spinal fusion -- because the latter is one of the "more lucrative procedures in medicine," according to Shannon Brownlee, author of the book, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer.
This despite the fact that the best success rate for spinal fusions is a mere 25 percent! According to one 2011 review, more than 17 percent of patients told they needed spinal surgery actually showed no abnormal neurological or radiographic findings that would necessitate surgery.18 A related concern is the fact that lower back pain is also one of the primary reasons why people get hooked on prescription painkillers. Deaths caused by overdosing on painkillers now surpass murders and fatal car accidents in the US, and over the past five years, heroin deaths have increased by 45 percent.19
Officials blame this increase on the rise of addictive prescription drugs such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, codeine, and Fentora, all of which are opioids (derivatives of opium). Heroin is simply a cheaper option to these prescription medications. Still, prescription painkillers claim far more lives than illegal street drugs like heroin. According to Gil Kerlikowske, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, prescription painkillers were responsible for 16,600 deaths in 2010—well over five times more than those caused by heroin.20
US officials have recently gone on the offensive, stating that narcotic painkillers are a driving force in the rise of substance abuse and lethal overdoses, and that both patients and doctors need to become better informed about their risks. Back pain, in turn, is a driving force behind opioid drug use, which makes it a central focus not just for decreasing disability claims and improving health and quality of life for millions of people, but also for tackling a rapidly growing problem of legal drug abuse and the associated death toll. Please do not let your physician convince you that prescription drugs are your only option for pain relief. I’ve already included nearly two-dozen alternatives in this article, and if you read below you’ll find even more.
14 More Natural Options for Powerful Pain Relief
Below I list 14 more non-drug alternatives for the treatment of pain. Again, this list is in no way meant to represent all of the approaches available; they are simply some of the best strategies I know of. If you are in pain, please try these first, before even thinking about prescription painkillers, steroid injections, or surgery of any kind.
- Eliminate or radically reduce most grains and sugars from your diet. Avoiding grains and sugars will lower your insulin and leptin levels and decrease insulin and leptin resistance, which is one of the most important reasons why inflammatory prostaglandins are produced. That is why stopping sugar and sweets is so important to controlling your pain and other types of chronic illnesses.
- Take a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat. My personal favorite is krill oil, which contains highly absorbable phospholipid-bound omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are precursors to mediators of inflammation called prostaglandins. (In fact, that is how anti-inflammatory painkillers work, they manipulate prostaglandins.)
- Optimize your production of vitamin D by getting regular, appropriate sun exposure, which will work through a variety of different mechanisms to reduce your pain.
- Astaxanthin is one of the most effective fat-soluble antioxidants known. It has very potent anti-inflammatory properties and in many cases works far more effectively than anti-inflammatory drugs. Higher doses are typically required and you may need 8 mg or more per day to achieve this benefit.
- Ginger: This herb has potent anti-inflammatory activity and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.
- Curcumin: In a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added 200 mg of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility.21 A past study also found that a turmeric extract composed of curcuminoids blocked inflammatory pathways, effectively preventing the overproduction of a protein that triggers swelling and pain.22
- Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this herb contains specific active anti-inflammatory ingredients. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.
- Bromelain: This enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form but eating fresh pineapple, including some of the bromelain-rich stem, may also be helpful.
- Cetyl myristoleate (CMO): This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a "joint lubricant" and an anti-inflammatory. I have used this for myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on non-ergonomic keyboards. I used a topical preparation for this.
- Evening primrose, black currant, and borage oils: These contain the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain.
- Cayenne cream: Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting the body's supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmits pain signals to your brain.
- Medical cannabis has a long history as a natural analgesic.23 At present, 20 US states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes. Its medicinal qualities are due to high amounts (about 10-20 percent) of cannabidiol (CBD), medicinal terpenes, and flavanoids. As discussed in this previous post, varieties of cannabis exist that are very low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the psychoactive component of marijuana that makes you feel "stoned"—and high in medicinal CBD. The Journal of Pain,24 a publication by the American Pain Society, has a long list of studies on the pain-relieving effects of cannabis.
- Hot and cold packs, and other mind-body techniques can also result in astonishing pain relief without any drugs.
- Grounding, or walking barefoot on the earth, may also provide a certain measure of pain relief by combating inflammation.