Natural Remedies

Expert Explains the Best Natural Remedies for Back Pain Relief

By Zora DeGrandpre, MS, ND

Oh, my aching back! 

If you have ever experienced back pain, you know that it can be sudden (acute) or it can be long-term (chronic). Either way, you also know how limiting it can be, and how significantly back pain can affect your life.  You aren’t alone—about 80% of people experience back pain at some point in their lives.

Back pain affects both men and women, but takes more of a toll as we age. Many people are in search of pain relieving treatments that may help their symptoms without the need for harsh medication or negative side effects. Continue reading to learn more about what causes people to experience discomfort in their back, and the best natural remedies for back pain.

Causes of Back Pain

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people schedule doctor visits or stay home from work. It can be caused by two main problems—either muscle/ligament strain or some form of damage to the bones of the spinal column.

Muscle strain

Lifting heavy objects with your back, or sometimes even bending over, can create unexpected muscle tension that leads to back pain. To avoid muscle strain, make sure you stretch out your back before exercising and avoid heavy lifting. Additionally, stress is often the root cause of back pain as it can cause muscle spasms. For this reason, it’s important to find time to relax and give your back a break.

Damage to the bony structure of the spine

This can include bulging or ruptured discs, which are found between the vertebrae on the spine and act as cushions between the bones. The material in the disc can bulge outward (herniation) and can rupture or tear. This can press on nerves and cause pain.

Back pain can also be caused by conditions like osteoarthritis or ankylosing spondylitis that affect the spinal column. Osteoporosis is a common culprit of chronic low back pain that causes the bones to become brittle and weak, and the spine can develop compression fractures.

Other conditions like scoliosis and sacroiliac joint dysfunction are also known to put pressure on the back, which can create painful side effects at times.

Natural Back Pain Remedies

To facilitate effective pain management, here are a few relatively easy and safe treatments for back pain.

Cold and Heat Therapy

If you’ve succumbed to a back injury, most physical therapy specialists suggest that you apply an ice pack for at least 20 to 30 minutes as soon as possible. The cold temperature reduces swelling and inflammation for immediate relief. After the initial injury, it often depends on what feels best for you. You can keep applying a cold pack for 20 minutes at a time, while leaving about one hour in between each application. Since the cold ice decreases blood flow, you need to allow some time in between ice pack applications. If the cold therapy does not appear to help, switch to a a heating pad and leave on for the same time frame (20-30 minutes).

For some people, alternating a cold pack with a heating pad (contrast therapy) brings the greatest relief. Heat promotes muscle relaxation and can be very useful for relieving pain from muscle spasms. Start with the cold pack, let your back rest for 1 hour or so and then apply either a heat pack or a heating pad. Heat increases blood flow, which in turn increases nutrient flow. The increased blood flow and nutrients are needed for healing. It may also be useful to apply heat by taking a hot bath to find relief.

Exercise and Slow Stretches

While it may be difficult to exercise when suffering with back pain, it can also be beneficial. Start small with a slow walk around the house or outdoors, and make certain not to overdo it. Even a brief walk can loosen tight joints and reduce the risk of your back becoming too stiff from minimal movement.

Easy-going and light stretching can also help relieve low back pain. These are primarily yoga poses which have been shown to relieve low back pain. Here are some stretches that can help treat back pain:

  • Slowly reach down and allow your fingers to get as close as possible to touching your toes. Stand next to a wall or a solid support like a chair, or the arm of a sofa, and start to slowly bend your back forwards, allowing both hands to come as close as possible to your toes. Once you are at that closest point, consciously try to relax your back. Let your arms hang loosely down.
  • Alternate between the “Cobra,” the “Cat,” and the “Cow” poses
    • In the Cobra pose, lie down on your stomach with your hands at shoulder level. Using your hands, lift your chest up off the floor, and tilt your head back as far as you comfortably can. Again, consciously relax your back muscles.
    • After the Cobra pose, get onto your hands and knees for the Cat pose. Arch your back as much as you comfortably can and hold it for about 10-20 seconds. Then slowly allow your back to “dip”—and hold this Cow pose for about 10-20 seconds.
    •  Repeat these poses 3 times every 2-4 hours.

Other exercises that can be useful to help alleviate back pain are low impact activities such as yoga, tai chi and qigong.  Water exercise can also be very useful.

Topical Pain Applications

There are several different types of natural pain relief creams, gels, lotions, and patches available that may be helpful to relieve back pain, such as:

  • Capsaicin—derived from chili peppers, this ingredient works by depleting something known as Substance P, a small peptide that acts as a signal for pain.
  • CBD—a compound that comes from cannabis plants, CBD (cannabidiol) is a legal substance known for its anti-inflammatory properties, especially when applied topically to the skin.
  • Menthol—with a cool scent and soothing sensation that provides pain relief, menthol is no stranger to the back pain community.

There is evidence that other herbal extracts can reduce back pain, including arnica, devil’s claw, white willow bark, comfrey, and lavender essential oil.

Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic care can improve both pain and function in those with acute back pain. Chiropractic therapies are very popular, but have struggled to gain acceptance by mainstream medicine due to a lack of supporting evidence. This, however, is changing and is evident in the number of studies showing that spinal manipulation can help treat and prevent back pain.

Stress management

Stress affects many of us more that we realize, and it can manifest its negative effects in many often-unsuspected ways—one of those ways includes back pain.

Stress management in the form of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have been shown be useful in both treating and preventing back pain.

Other Approaches for Prevention of Back Pain

Back pain has many causes, but there are ways that you can help prevent it. These additional tips can help you avoid back strain and discomfort:

  • Exercise to strengthen back muscles, such as supermans, bridges, and lateral leg lifts.
  • Using the legs rather than the back to lift heavy objects.
  • Getting enough sleep, rest, and relaxation for your body to recover properly.
  • Ergonomically comfortable and supportive seating for work and relaxation.
  • Shoes that fit and do not strain the back—high heels have been linked to back pain, but other types of flat shoes may also not provide enough support. Consider getting shoes with a low heels (~1 inch) to provide extra support.

Whether you’re suffering with an acute injury or a chronic condition, these natural remedies for back pain are great alternative options to try. You can also talk to your doctor about these therapies and determine which home remedies may be the right choice for you.

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