Alternative Therapies for Low Back Pain

From the WebMD Archives

There are lots of ways you can treat your low back pain without drugs or surgery. These alternative therapies can bring you relief and help you live an active life.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is one of the best alternative treatments for low back pain, says Moshe Lewis, MD, a physiatrist at California Pacific Medical Center. It involves inserting thin needles in your skin at specific points to help relieve pain.

You may feel relief after each session. It can last a few hours to a few weeks after finishing a round of treatments. Acupuncture is especially helpful if you have muscle spasms or nerve-related pain.

To find a qualified acupuncturist, ask your doctor for a referral, or ask friends and family for recommendations.

Massage

"Massage is an excellent form of therapy to release tightness in your muscles," says Heather Tick, MD, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and author of Holistic Pain Relief. It can soothe your back pain, help you function better, and cut down on how much medication you need.

In one study, people who had 1 hour of massage once a week for 10 weeks had fewer symptoms, were more active, and spent less time in bed than people who had traditional treatments.

Getting massage therapy regularly can help you feel less back pain for up to 6 months. You can also try self-massage. A massage therapist can teach you how.

Exercise

Being active releases pressure on your disks, and that can help you feel better. If you work at a desk, take breaks regularly. Stand up, stretch, and walk around.

Regular exercise is important. Start a walking program, or try a workout routine that strengthens your muscles. Both are good for long-term low back pain. Tai chi is another good choice, Tick says.

Yoga and Pilates

There's mounting evidence that yoga reduces back pain. Pilates is also helpful. Both bring relief by combining stretching and strength exercises.

Try doing it 3 to 4 times a week. See if you can work up to an hour a day. Or sneak it in when you can. Do 10 minutes of yoga or Pilates when you wake up. Do another 10 minutes before bed. Add extra exercises here and there.

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Chiropractic Spinal Manipulation

Getting spine adjustments from a chiropractor or other professional can reduce back pain. It may work just as well as other treatments, or sometimes better. It's a good choice if you don't have nerve pain or nerve damage, Lewis says.

Try a set of 12 sessions of spinal manipulative therapy with a licensed chiropractor, osteopathic physician, or physical therapist. You'll probably feel better right away, and you may feel good long after you're done.

"It can last from a few hours to several months, typically after a set of treatments is complete," Lewis says.

Herbal Remedies

It's possible that certain herbal treatments may be helpful for low back pain. But there's not a lot of evidence to support it.

Some people try capsaicin cream, a form of cayenne pepper that you apply to your back to block pain signals from reaching your brain.

The extract of the herb white willow is similar to aspirin and may help also help relieve pain.

Devil's claw, an herb used to treat osteoarthritis, may also be helpful for your back pain. You take it in a capsule, tablet, or liquid, or as an ointment that you put on your skin.

Biofeedback and Mind-Based Treatments

Biofeedback uses special equipment, usually at a doctor's or therapist's office, to give you information about your body's physical reactions. It can teach you how to monitor and control your breathing and your pulse to help you relax and ease long-term pain.

Other techniques include progressive relaxation, where you tighten and then relax different muscles; and mindfulness-based stress reduction, which uses meditation. Both help you use your mind to reduce the sensation of pain. But studies are inconclusive, so it's unclear if they're effective therapeutic treatments.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD on July 02, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

Moshe M. Lewis, MD, physical medicine and rehabilitation, California Pacific Medical Center, St. Luke's Campus.

Heather Tick, MD, endowed professor of integrative pain medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle; author, Holistic Pain Relief, New World Library, 2013.

Cramer, H. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Sept. 25, 2012.

Cramer, H. The Clinical Journal of Pain, May 2013.

Haas, M. Spine Journal, July 1, 2014.

Shnayderman, I. Clinical Rehabilitation, March 2013.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): "Acupuncture for Pain," "Chronic Pain and Complementary Health Approaches: What You Need To Know," "Spinal Manipulation's Effects May Go Beyond Those of Placebo or Expectation, Study Finds," "Determining the Optimal Number of Spinal Manipulation Sessions for Chronic Low-Back Pain," "Spinal Manipulation for Low-Back Pain," "Massage Therapy Holds Promise for Low-Back Pain," "Relaxation Techniques for Health: An Introduction."

NYU Langone Medical Center: "Back Pain."

Maryland Medical Center: "Cayenne," "Devil's Claw."

University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness: "Stress Reduction Program."

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