Back pain is one of the most wide-spread pain conditions in the U.S, with approximately 80-90% of the population experiencing it at some point in their life. Fortunately, there are many different treatments for low back pain. Here are 13 of our favorites.
1. Get a proper diagnosis
With X-rays and MRIs abounding these days, it would seem that a proper diagnosis is easy, but in many cases, patients are over- or under-diagnosed for their condition. A new scan called single photon emission computed tomography, combined with computed tomography (SPECT/CT) is able to look for causes of low back pain that are not structural in nature, offering more accurate diagnoses. Patients who underwent this type of scan in addition to more traditional bone scans achieved 50% greater pain relief than those who did not, indicating that their treatments were more accurate due to a more accurate initial diagnosis.
In many cases, low back pain is caused by inadequate use of the muscles in the body, and the key treatment to start with is exercise. Low impact exercise like walking is a great place to start, and swimming, a low impact exercise that utilizes the whole body, is even better. Talk to your doctor, then start your new exercise plan slowly, adding length to the workout or intensity as you build strength.
3. Low-inflammation diet
For low back pain with its roots in inflammation, eliminating inflammatory foods from the diet can be a great way to help control pain. Gluten, dairy, and sugar are common inflammatory foods. The good news is that there are all kinds of options to make these changes easier. There are also many delicious inflammation-fighting foods to substitute, such as salmon (or other fish with omega-3s), tart cherries, ginger, almonds, and turmeric.
4. Weight loss
Think about the structure of the low back. One thin column of vertebrae is the only body structure that connects the upper body with the lower. This spiny column is surrounded by muscles, tissues and organs. Supporting all of this is a lot to ask, especially if extra weight is present in that area. For those who have gained weight and are carrying it mostly in their belly, the lumbar curve can become overly pronounced (referred to as lordosis), placing extra strain on the lumbar vertebrae that results in low back pain. Losing weight and adding muscle to the core can decrease this strain and help support the spine.
Biofeedback training is the process whereby a patient learns to recognize the physical signs of stress in the body brought on by pain. They then learn techniques to help control the stress response, easing the pain and working through it. While this does not necessarily eliminate the physical cause of pain, research has shown that biofeedback training can greatly decrease the sensation of pain in the body. There are no side effects to practicing biofeedback responses, and once the technique is learned the treatment is free.
Massage is a great way to encourage tight muscles to relax. In the beginning of treatment, patients may only be able to tolerate the lightest of touches. By the end, the massage therapist may be leaning into crunchy places with an elbow, working the kinks out of the deepest tissues in the body.
7. Physical therapy
Often used in conjunction with other methods of pain relief, physical therapy can be a great way to learn proper and appropriate rehabilitation techniques for low back pain. Exercise is great, but many people with good intentions hit the gym and use equipment improperly, causing further injury. A physical therapist works with a patient’s doctor to help design a specific program and then teaches proper form to get the most benefit. They can also map out an exercise plan for further strengthening and injury prevention.
8. Chiropractic care
According to a Consumer Reports survey of over 14,000 people with back pain, chiropractic care was rated number one for back pain relief, even above prescription pain medication and other traditional methods of care.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical practice that focuses on opening up the energy channels in the body by inserting hair-like needles into specific points in the body. Reliable research studies of acupuncture’s effectiveness are mixed, but many people report relief of low back pain with few or no side effects. Some insurance companies now cover this outpatient treatment for the cost of a co-pay, so it may be worth a try!
10. Over-the-counter medicines
Sometimes all your low back needs is the anti-inflammatory boost of an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen. As a long-term solution and taken in high doses, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have been shown to have serious side effects like gastrointestinal bleeding, but for an acute injury or in the case of a minor back strain, NSAIDs can be a safe, effective treatment.
11. Prescription medication
While not recommended for long-term, chronic pain, some prescription medications can be very effective in treating short-term, acute back pain. Opioids have a controversial history that includes an increase in the rates of dependence and a decrease in effectiveness, but in some specific cases they can help offer short-term relief of low back pain.
Facet joint injections and medial branch blocks are two minimally-invasive surgical techniques that can be used both as a diagnostic tool and as a way to relieve low back pain. In this outpatient treatment, doctors inject a numbing agent either directly into the joint (facet) or into the affected nerve (medial branch). If pain relief is achieved, the treatment is successful and can be repeated up to three times per year. If it is not effective, then the doctor has eliminated a possible cause of pain. Side effects are minimal and usually eliminated by proper placement of the needle.
13. Surgical intervention
Surgical options such as spinal fusion and discography are at the extreme end of treatment options. They are more invasive than other treatments listed, but in the hands of an experienced pain management and spine specialist, they can be effective at relieving certain types of low back pain.