From acupuncture to yoga, many different alternative treatments purport to relieve chronic back pain. Which are worth trying?
“As long as you’ve had your back pain problem checked out by a doctor to rule out a serious disease, it would be reasonable to try any of a number of alternative treatments,” says Daniel C. Cherkin, PhD, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute in Seattle who has conducted research on alternative medical techniques for back pain.
Of course, experts say it’s best to stick with the alternative treatments that are proven to be safe and potentially effective. Here are seven:
Acupuncture. Can inserting needles in your body really relieve lower back pain? Recent studies, including a randomized trial of acupuncture published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, suggest that it may. The only question seems to be why this ancient healing tradition works.
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine maintain that the needles affect the flow of a “vital energy” known as qi (pronounced chee) within the body. Some scientists suggest that it works by triggering the release of natural painkillers known as endorphins.
Donald B. Levy, MD, medical director of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Osher Clinical Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies in Chestnut Hill, Mass., says that how acupuncture works may not matter, at least from the patient’s perspective. “I can’t explain how my car works,” says Levy, who is also an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “I just know that if I turn the key properly in the ignition, it starts.”
Acupuncture needles typically stay in place for 20 to 30 minutes, and several sessions may be required.
Alexander technique. This type of physical therapy uses hands-on training to teach people to avoid specific postures and ways of moving that cause pain by placing undue strain on the musculoskeletal system. It pays particular attention to releasing tension in the neck, back, and spine. Its name comes from an Australian actor named F. M. Alexander, who developed the technique.
There isn't a lot of research on the Alexander technique, but one study published in the journal BMJ showed that people given one-on-one training in the technique reduced their back pain. "This is an effective technique to improve pain and function in the long term," one of the study's authors, Paul Little, PhD, professor of primary care research at the University of Southampton in England, told WebMD in an email. But "it's not a magic bullet. It requires time and application."
Biofeedback. This high-tech treatment can help you learn to loosen tight muscles by using your mind to control your body. To learn biofeedback, sensors are applied to your body that give continuous feedback about body functions such as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, muscle tension, and brain wave activity. A biofeedback therapist teaches you relaxation techniques so you can see how to control a specific body function. As you become aware of the connection between the mind and the body, you may be able to reduce muscle tension and relieve pain.