Natural treatments for a sore back
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
If you deal with back pain, you know it can make you feel miserable. Whether it’s persistent low back pain or spasms, an aching neck, or sciatic nerve pain shooting down your legs, chronic back pain can interrupt your work and your favourite activities.
Unfortunately, back pain is quite common. Back pain is the largest single cause of disability in the UK, with lower back pain alone accounting for 11% of the total disability of the UK population.
Despite a wealth of research in recent years about how to treat back pain, too many patients still receive unnecessary and often excessive treatment. Instead of being urged to continue to work and stay active, which has been shown to be effective, patients often are told to take time off to rest, referred for scans and surgery, and prescribed painkillers, including opioids.
Fortunately, there are many alternative treatments for back pain, many of which are easy to do at home and affordable, with no doctor’s prescription necessary.
Try these tips to relieve back pain without surgery
1. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet
The foods we eat – and how much – can prevent and reverse a host of health conditions, including some types of back pain. Inflammation is your body’s natural response to protect itself from harm and is a known cause of back pain. Studies have suggested that an anti-inflammatory diet can be just as effective at treating back pain as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
Foods that fight inflammation include:
• Brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, blueberries, oranges, strawberries, and tomatoes
• Fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel
• Green, leafy vegetables, including spinach, kale, collards, and broccoli
• Healthy, monounsaturated fats, such as avocado, olive oil, and canola oil
• Nuts, including almonds and walnuts
• Seeds, such as chia, sunflower, and pumpkin
Be sure to avoid foods that can promote inflammation, including fast food, processed foods, and foods that are high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates.
2. Get enough calcium (but not too much)
Calcium is key for strong teeth and bones, and getting enough (along with vitamin D) can relieve back pain caused by conditions that affect bone mass and strength, such as osteoporosis.
Depending on age, most adults should get between 1,000 and 1,200 mg per day of calcium and between 600 and 800 international units of vitamin D per day. Most patients shouldn’t get more than 2,000 mg of calcium a day because too much calcium can cause heart problems and increase the risk of bone fractures.
Calcium-rich foods include:
• Canned sardines and salmon with the bones
• Dairy, such as plain yogurt, cheese, and milk
• Green, leafy vegetables, such as broccoli and bok choy
• Soybeans and tofu
If you find it challenging to get enough calcium in your diet, talk to your doctor, who can prescribe a calcium supplement or refer you to a registered dietitian for nutrition recommendations.
3. Achieve a healthy weight
In 2014 84% of adults in England were classified as overweight or obese (a body mass index of 25 or above), compared to 63% 20 years earlier. More than one-thirds of men and over 8 in 10 women are overweight or obese. Carrying extra weight can significantly strain your back muscles and spine.
Losing weight can be difficult; however, doing so can help control your back pain, prevent the condition from getting worse, and even potentially eliminate the need for pain medication or surgery.
4. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation are well-known therapies to relieve stress and anxiety. However, some research suggests mindfulness might reduce the intensity of low back pain and improve back function in the short term.
5. Kick out the stilettos
High-heeled sandals and stilettos might be fashionable but can push the lower back, spine, and hips out of alignment, which leads to muscle overuse and back pain. Even shoes with platform or block heels can be bad for your back over time.
If you’re not willing to part with your shoes, try to avoid wearing them for long periods of time. You could also choose lower heels, avoid pointy toed-shoes that squash the feet into an awkward position, and use gel or padded inserts to reduce the impact on your hips and spine.
6. Practice yoga
Regardless of the type and severity of your back pain, yoga can significantly reduce your symptoms. Some patients are able to avoid pain medication and surgery altogether. The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the US, the University Hospital of Cologne in Germany, the University of Portsmouth in the UK, and Yoga Sangeeta in the US.
7. Move more
You might be tempted to take a break from all physical activity when your back hurts, but doing so actually can make the pain worse. For many patients, a personalized combination of strength training exercises focused on the core (the abdominal and back muscles), flexibility exercises, and aerobic activity can effectively prevent and control chronic back pain:
• Core strength exercises can provide additional support to the lower back, improving posture and reducing strain on the spine.
• Flexibility of the muscles and ligaments in the back increases your range of motion and improves back function.
• Aerobic exercise can increase blood flow and nutrients to the tissues in the back, speeding up healing and reducing stiffness that can lead to back pain.
Surprised? Smoking inhibits blood flow and prevents tissue throughout the body from getting oxygen and nutrients, which can cause the spine and back muscles to weaken. The result: chronic back pain.
When you’re ready to quit smoking, talk to your doctor about tools to quit, such as prescription medications or nicotine gum or patches. Also, consider a smoking cessation programme, which, in combination with medication, has been shown to help patients quit tobacco for good
Massage was once considered a luxury—something you'd enjoy at a spa or health club. However, the benefit of a massage is now considered a more mainstream therapy and is often recommended by doctors and other medical professionals as part of an overall wellness program. One of the most common and beneficial parts of the body for massage is the back, since the nerves run through the spine.
When it comes to treating back pain, surgery should be reserved only for patients with severe conditions or when more natural treatments don’t work. For the majority of patients, lifestyle changes and alternative therapies can help keep back pain at bay over the long term. Get yourself some massage!