If your back feels bent out of shape, you’re not alone. Back pain is the second leading cause for doctor visits in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health, in a three-month period, more than one-fourth of U.S. adults experience at least one day of back pain. The causes of back pain are many. Sometimes it’s brought on by slouching at our desks, sports injuries or sedentary lifestyles. In older people, conditions such as osteoarthritis may be the cause, making spinal joints stiff and sore, and creating pressure on the nerve roots.
Back pain can be divided into two basic categories: acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain comes on quickly, but often ends quickly too — for example, lifting a heavy load or falling from a ladder. Chronic pain may develop suddenly or slowly, but it lasts longer — weeks and even months. In both cases, however, it’s best to address and treat the underlying causes of back pain, rather than simply alleviating symptoms.
Whether you’re dealing with long-term chronic pain, a sudden back injury or painful tension, here are a few herbs, specific remedies and techniques that will help you loosen up and relieve aches and pains.
Herbs for Acute Pain
When it comes to acute pain, it’s tempting to reach for seemingly simple pain remedies in the form of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs such as ibuprofen or aspirin. However, frequent doses — even small ones — of OTC painkillers are hard on the liver, and they can lead to serious side effects such as stomach bleeding or increased risk of stroke. Instead of drugs, try these simple natural remedies for short-term back pain.
Ginger is a natural inhibitor of COX-2, an enzyme that uses stored fat to inflame injured areas and lead to pain. In a lab study conducted at the University of Sydney, Australia, researchers discovered that ginger was just as effective as aspirin at inhibiting this action. For best results, take 2,000 to 4,000 mg of ginger per day, or drink three to four cups of ginger tea.
Arnica has anti-inflammatory compounds that can treat sore muscles, sprains and other related pains. It comes in many forms for topical use, including tinctures, creams, salves, ointments, gels and oils. Note that arnica should never be ingested, or applied to an open wound.
Chamomile can soothe tense, knotted muscles. Steep a tablespoon of chamomile flowers in a mug of boiling water for 15 minutes. Drink one to three cups of the tea a day for as long as the pain persists. Chamomile essential oil is also often recommended for pain relief by clinical aromatherapists, and is gentle enough to be used with children.
Physical Treatment for Acute Back Pain
Unfortunately, no specific exercises have been shown to improve acute back pain, or increase functional ability. However, doctors often recommend exercise for those who have recently suffered a lower back injury, usually starting with gentle, low-impact exercises, and gradually building up intensity. If you’ve suffered a back injury, stretching or activities that cause additional strain are discouraged, so be sure to consult your physician regarding treatment and activity.
If acute back pain is injury-related (for example, after a fall, car accident or blow to the spine), it’s important to see a doctor immediately. However, most non-injury related acute back pain can be treated without professional help. If the pain interferes with normal daily activities, and doesn’t improve after one or two days, consult a physician. If mild to moderate pain persists after two weeks of home treatment, your doctor may want to check for other problems that could be causing the pain.
Herbs for Chronic Pain
While herbal remedies can take longer to effectively relieve pain, for chronic sufferers, natural solutions can help reduce dependency on prescription drugs and OTC painkillers. Here are a few herbal options to help ease recurrent back pain.
White Willow Bark
White willow bark has been used as an analgesic dating back to 500 B.C. in China. Modern research shows that it helps both chronic and acute back pain, as well as osteoarthritic and nerve pain. Willow bark contains natural compounds that make it an anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-neuralgic. White willow bark can be purchased as standardized extracts and teas. To make white willow tea for pain relief, add one to two teaspoons of bark to one cup of water. Boil, simmer for 10 minutes, and then allow to cool slightly. Note that willow bark should not be given to children, and may interact adversely with blood-thinning medications. It may take several cups to get the desired pain relief.
Devil's claw contains iridoid glycosides that, according to researchers, give it powerful pain-relief properties. In one double-blind placebo-controlled trial, 63 participants with lower back pain took devil’s claw or a placebo for four weeks. At the study’s conclusion, participants who took devil’s claw reported a significant improvement in muscular pain and stiffness. To relieve pain, take 100 to 250 mg of devil’s claw three times a day. Avoid this herb if you suffer from ulcers or gallstones, or if you’re taking warfarin.
Eucalyptus helps numb pain, and can be used to relieve spinal stiffness. To help with morning back pain, add two drops of eucalyptus oil to your morning shower, and breathe the steam to relax and get a direct dose of therapeutic herbs to your spine, or any other area that’s causing pain.
Physical Treatment for Chronic Back Pain
Studies have found that massage can be helpful for persistent low back pain, as well as for neck pain. In some cases, massage may even provide a stronger benefit than common OTC anti-inflammatory drugs. Stretching can also help sufferers of long-term chronic back pain, in addition to regular exercise. Here are two stretches that can help relieve chronic back pain.
Rectus Femoris Muscle Stretch
The rectus femoris muscle, one of the four quadriceps muscles, runs above the hip, down through the kneecap and into the front of the tibia. It is one of the most common muscles associated with back pain caused by posture problems, as tightness in the quadriceps can lead to an excessive amount of lumbar curve, or swayback, according to Doug Lewis, former chair of the Physical Medicine department at Bastyr University. Stretching this muscle can relieve tension in the legs, and help correct excess curve.
To do a rectus femoris stretch, stand next to a chair and put the knee of the leg you want to stretch on the seat, holding the back of the chair for balance. Pull the heel of the leg on the chair toward your buttocks, and push your pelvis back. You should feel the stretch all the way from the knee, up the leg, to the front of your thigh.
According to Dr. Andrew Weil, this alternating yoga sequence, which stretches the lower spine, hips, back and core muscles, may promote a healthy, flexible spine. Begin with cow pose, starting on hands and knees. Make sure knees are directly below your hips, and your shoulders and elbows are in line and perpendicular to the floor. Inhale, lifting sitting bones and chest toward the ceiling, and sinking your belly toward the floor. Broaden your shoulder blades, drawing shoulders away from your ears. Lift your head to look straight forward. As you exhale, move into cat pose: Draw your belly toward your spine, round your back toward the ceiling, and release the crown of your head toward the floor. Repeat the sequence five to 20 times.
Alternative pain-relief therapies such as spinal manipulation, acupuncture and cupping therapy have a mixed record. Medical and scientific opinions on spinal manipulation and acupuncture differ, and spinal manipulation remains controversial. Research on cupping therapy has been scant and inconclusive. If you choose to use any of these therapies, make sure to go to a licensed professional.