An introduction to back pain relief
Back pain is a common yet debilitating problem. Many people find that their symptoms clear up by themselves fairly quickly, particularly if the pain is caused by minor soft tissue damage, sometimes known as back strain. However, for severe, chronic or recurring back pain, many people look for some kind of relief from their symptoms.
It is important to recognise from the outset that there is no magic cure for back pain that either conventional medicine or alternative medicine can provide. However, with a little time, there are treatments which have been shown to significantly reduce the frequency and severity of back pain symptoms.
Treatments for acute back pain
Acute back pain is pain which lasts for less than six weeks. Often this type of back pain will clear up by itself. However, there are treatments you can try which will speed up recovery:
- Pain killers - some people find conventional painkillers such as paracetamol or aspirin can be effective as the first-line treatment for symptoms of back pain. In some cases, anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can be used. Your GP may also prescribe other similar drugs in stronger doses, depending on the specific needs of the individual. Often herbs with pain-killing and anti-inflammatory properties, such as Arnica or Devils claw are an effective alternative to conventional medicines for back pain
- Hot and cold treatments - taking a warm bath or putting an ice pack on the affected area can be an effective way of reducing symptoms of back pain. Some people alternate between the two which may also reduce any tissue swelling
- Relaxation - this is very important as releasing muscle tension is a crucial part of easing pain symptoms. Stress or anxiety caused by worrying about the condition has been found to make pain more intense and it is important to remember that in most cases, back pain is not a serious condition and can normally be treated very effectively by a range of therapies
- Rest - although in the past doctors would advise patients to stay in bed and rest when experiencing back pain, it has been shown that keeping active and moving will improve symptoms of stiffness and tension, especially in the lower back. Activity should be limited to gentle exercise, even if it is just moving around the house or taking a walk. Some people find a daily swim to be helpful. Exercise may cause some discomfort, but this will be usual. However, look out for anything which causes severe pain as this should be avoided.
Treatments for chronic back pain
Chronic back pain (lasting more than six weeks) should be treated by a GP who will advise and prescribe a range of different treatments. These may include:
- An exercise programme , including physiotherapy to strengthen muscles and improve posture
- Acupuncture or other complementary therapies
- Anti-depressants. Although usually used to treat depression these have also been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of persistent pain
- Cognitive behavioural therapy will help manage the pain and change a patient’s attitude to the condition
- Surgery is used as a last resort if all other treatments fail.
How can a doctor help me?
Back pain is not a problem that can be fixed immediately and whilst doctors and other healthcare professionals may be able to help with symptoms, they will most likely not be able to ‘cure’ the problem. However, your GP will be able to:
- check for a serious, underlying problem to the pain
- improve and discuss posture
- advise on activity levels
- if needed, devise a weight-loss programme
- prescribe painkillers
- advise on individual needs of patient
Doctors may advise you to go to a physiotherapist or other complementary practitioner to seek advice.
What about complementary medicine?
For many people, complementary medicines provide an effective solution to back pain. It is less intrusive to the body than conventional medication, yet can have longer lasting effects.
- Osteopathy – this is now a mainstream treatment for back pain and accepted by many doctors. It involves physical manipulations or massages to ease the pain and encourage increased movement or the back
- Chiropractic treatment – this is another form of physical therapy which has many overlaps with osteopathy. It often involves the use of short, sharp thrusts to help correct any misalignment of the spine
- Acupuncture - this has been shown to treat symptoms of pain and is sometimes combined with both osteopathic or chiropractic treatments. It is a form of complementary medicine which involves inserting small needles at particular points of the body in order to change the way that certain organs or joints are working, to relieve pain
- Glucosamine – this is a supplement which maintains and renews one of the major components of cartilage. It is an effective treatment if your back pain is caused by wear and tear on your spine
- Arnica – this is a herb which has been used for hundreds of years as it contains active components which have a marked impact on swelling and inflammation. If applied externally to the site of pain, usually in gel form, then it will reduce inflammation, pain and stiffness
- Devil’s Claw – this is a herb native to Southern parts of Africa which is a traditional remedy for a number of health conditions including general joint pain, rheumatism and back pain. It is taken internally and has anti-inflammatory properties, similar to steroids, although without the side-effects associated with steroid use.
Are there ways to prevent back pain?
As with most things, ‘prevention is better than cure.’ The main way to prevent back pain is to reduce the risk factors for the condition by ensuring you have an active lifestyle, are not overweight and keep stress levels to a minimum.
- Exercise is the main preventative method for combating back pain and is also a very effective treatment method. Simple exercises such as walking or swimming will help to strengthen the muscles in your back. It will also help to reduce the likelihood of weight gain. In addition, when experiencing an episode of back pain, endorphins produced by the body during exercise can act as a natural painkiller
- Ensuring you adopt a proper posture when sitting or standing will also decrease your risk of developing back pain. When standing, make sure that you don’t round your back, avoid slumping your shoulders forward or tensing your neck muscles when stressed. When sitting, use a chair that supports your lower back and make sure you do not sit for long periods at a time. Whilst driving, support your lower back and position the mirrors so that you do not have to twist round repeatedly
- When lifting or moving heavy objects, ensure that this is done correctly by keeping your feet apart, bending your knees, keeping your lower back straight and allowing your legs (rather than your back) to take the strain.