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Pain in the Back?
Promote a healthy back with natural therapies
By Mark Hoeflich
October 19, 2000


When it strikes, back pain can literally knock you off your feet. Not to mention, back pain costs us plenty in time away from work, family and friends, and the expense of treatment.

Next to the common cold, back pain causes more lost workdays in adults under age 45. And four out of five adults will experience lower back pain sometime during their lives, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Still, back pain doesn’t have to get you down. You can fight back with holistic therapies known to help and manage the pain.

Pain, pain, go way

Although pain can occur anywhere in the back, the majority of back pain occurs in the lower back. A number of natural herbs, such as tumeric and ginger work nicely as anti-inflammatories, without the side effects of traditional nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), said Doug Lewis, N.D., professor of Physical Medicine at Bastyr University in Washington.

Lewis likewise recommends digestive enzymes, also known as pancreatic enzymes, which have anti-inflammatory characteristics. Digestive enzymes aid in the breakdown of different types of food (protein, carbohydrates, sugars and fats) and include proteolytic, amylases and lipases. When taken on an empty stomach, a digestive enzyme such as the popular bromelain, enters the bloodstream and clears out products that contribute to inflammation.

Vitamin and mineral supplements such as calcium and magnesium, and glucosamine-sulfate and chondroitan-sulfate aid in the healing process. A combination of calcium and magnesium helps muscles to function properly by reducing spasms, a common symptom of back pain that can be caused by low levels of calcium.

When taken together, glucosamine-sulfate and chondroitan-sulfate are effective in repairing damaged connective tissue.


John Payne, Ph.D., director and co-founder of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, said poor posture tops the list of reasons for back pain. Because most people lean forward too much, it pulls the curve of the lower back down and the hips and pelvis in the wrong way, restricting the movement of the spine.

Yoga reduces the stress of back pain by bringing muscles into harmony, thereby creating a balance of both strength and flexibility. Additionally, yoga encourages positive thinking, which can be a great healer.

The key is finding which yoga class is right for you. For some people, a regular yoga class will do, while others might need only to lie on their stomach and practice an arching movement called the “cobra.” Many others, however, get the greatest benefit from working one-on-one with a yoga therapist, said Payne.

“Yoga gives you the right on ramp to the freeway,” said Payne, author of Yoga For Dummies (IDG, 1999) and director of the yoga program at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Yoga is not effective for acute pain – sudden pain or numbness – that requires immediate attention from a health care practitioner. Instead, yoga is best for prevention, rehabilitation and chronic back problems.

And, Payne added that the biggest difference in yoga over any type of physical therapy is breathing. With yoga, there is a breath with every movement and since it’s done through the nose, it has a direct effect on the nervous system. This works in two ways: First, air that moves through the nose actually slows breathing, and, since air is filtered as it goes through the nasal passage, it has a calming effect on the nervous system.

Get off your . . .

By now, it’s understood that being sedentary is the worst thing for back pain. Mild to moderate exercise and consistent stretching can often provide relief.

“Several studies have shown that repeated stretching in the same direction, on the same side of the body, relaxes the body and allows for better gains in flexibility,” said Joy Prouty, health fitness director with the American College of Sports Medicine.

Prouty added one of the best stretches for the lower back is bringing the knees to the chest. While lying on your back, shoulders relaxed, pull one knee as close to your chest as possible and hold for 15-30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.

Another good stretch is known as spinal rotations. Again lying on the floor, with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and arms at your side, lower both knees to one side of your body, while gently looking away to the other side. Hold the stretch to the point of mild tension for 15-30 seconds. Repeat for the opposite side.

Exercise such as riding a stationary bike has been shown to ease back pain. A study by the University of Wisconsin reported that participants who rode an exercise bike for 25 minutes felt significantly less discomfort for up to 30 minutes.

“With exercises that get blood flow going and warm muscles, you have greater movement and flexibility,” Prouty said. Walking and water exercises also are considered helpful.

Preventing back pain also includes strengthening the muscles and ligaments that are routinely used. Strong leg muscles also increase mobility in the lower back.

“Although it’s nice to heal naturally, with the back you have so many structures that come into play,” said Ellen Potthoff, D.C., N.D., with the California Association of Naturopathic Physicians. “That’s why it’s important to know exactly what’s going on, particularly if back pain has been around for a while.

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