3 Alternative Therapies for Back Pain | alive

Looking for alternative therapies for back pain? Osteopathy, acupuncture, and massage therapy can all help sufferers of acute or chronic pain.

“Ouch!” There it is again. Whether it’s at the base of your neck, between your shoulder blades, or nestled securely in your lower back, pain has probably affected you at some point along life’s journey.

Our aching backs

Pain has been defined as a perception that we have about the events that are taking place in or to our own body. Back pain continues to be a major health and economic problem for Canadians, especially in our thirties and forties.

One of the ways to classify lower back pain is by the duration of pain:

  • acute: lasting up to 4 weeks
  • sub-acute: lasting from 2 to 6 months
  • chronic: lasting more than 6 months

Acute back pain

Clinically, acute low back pain can present in many ways and may start without any apparent reason at all, or it may result from a back strain. It’s typically the result of a significant physical exertion and can last from a few minutes to several weeks or months. Interestingly, the intensity of back pain may not feel equal to the type of injury sustained.

Chronic back pain

When not directly related to an injury, back pain can have other causes. Take osteoarthritis, for instance. It’s the most common type of arthritis, affecting one in 10 Canadians. It can attack the joints of the spine, resulting in chronic back pain.

Signs and symptoms

Warning signs and symptoms of back pain to watch out for, include

  • heat
  • swelling
  • limited mobility in joints
  • discomfort you can pinpoint in your spine
  • discomfort, pins and needles, and/or numbness in hands or feet

Complementary therapies

So where can you turn to relieve back pain? If you’re concerned about the risks associated with long-term use of some medications for low back pain, there are alternative back pain treatments that may help you reduce medication use and promote self-care.

Osteopathy

Growing in popularity across Canada is the age-old practice of osteopathy. With its roots in the US in the 1800s, osteopathy is a natural medical practice that helps to restore function to the body by assessing and treating the causes of pain and imbalance.

Osteopathic manual practitioner Joseph Rotella says, “An osteopathic approach to treating low back pain includes assessing the mobility and related soft tissue of the spine and pelvis.” He stresses the importance of evaluating the mechanics of the organs within the abdomen and pelvis. Rotella explains that to “reduce restrictions along the whole nervous system,” low back treatment is combined with evaluation and treatment of the cranium.

The session

A treatment will typically last 30 minutes to one hour and may include a range of techniques, including moving, stretching, and manipulating the affected muscles and joints. The goal of each session is to assess and provide treatment according to the position, mobility, and quality (vitality) of the tissues.

Acupuncture

This ancient Chinese medicine practice involves inserting small needles at specific points on the body to treat pain and rebalance the flow of energy or life force.

“Treating the kidney meridian is a common approach for helping with back pain,” says Linda Li, a licensed traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. Li works with her clients to meet their individual needs. In cases where the muscles of the back are overworked, Li says, she also treats points behind the knee and in the foot.

The session

For long-term back pain lasting longer than six weeks, acupuncture treatments commonly consist of 10 sessions over a period of approximately 12 weeks. The number of treatments required will vary depending on the nature of the problem. “Treatment can be 30 to 50 percent more effective with the use of heat during the session,” says Li.

Massage therapy

Massage therapy is a hands-on approach designed to optimize health by manipulation of the soft tissues of the body, involving the muscles, connective tissue, tendons, ligaments, and joints.

“Depending on the client’s needs and tolerance, I provide deep tissue massage, muscle energy techniques, flushing techniques, strain-counterstrain, active release techniques, and myofascial release,” explains registered massage therapist, Denice Spykerman.

The session

Massage therapy treatments can reduce tension and pain, increase circulation, and improve flexibility. Sessions may be scheduled over a six-week period or as necessary.

Effectiveness of treatment

“An osteopathic approach is particularly effective for patients with numerous issues simultaneously,” states Rotella, given that “many patients with low back pain also complain of circulatory issues, digestive disorders, neck pain, et cetera.”

“The effectiveness of [acupuncture] treatment for low back pain depends on the patient and the symptoms presenting in their body as a whole,” says Li. “For example, low back pain is affected by emotional components as well.”

Spykerman confirms that massage therapy is effective for “muscle related issues.” “Of course,” she says, “if the pain is not of a muscular nature then the client will need to be referred to another practitioner.”

Recommendations for self-care

Osteopathy

  • Perform remedial exercises as prescribed once a strong base of mobility is established through treatment.
  • Choose exercises that use the full body in “real life” settings for best effect, such as Pilates and yoga.

Acupuncture

  • Have a warm foot bath, with a cinnamon stick added.
  • Learn how to do acupressure therapy to provide further self-healing.

Massage therapy

  • Perform exercises that are tailored to the individual by the therapist.
  • Assume a comfortable sleep position; the best position is to lie on one’s side with pillows between the knees and under the head.

Before deciding on an effective treatment for the signs and symptoms of a pain disorder, the underlying cause must first be properly understood. Pain has been described as a gift. It certainly grabs our attention, alerting us to the need for treatment.

Ask your health care practitioner if one of these alternative treatment models can help you relieve your back pain and put the spring back in your step.

Bone up on back health

These nutrients, also available in supplement form, promote bone and spine health:

Nutrient Benefits Food sources
calcium helps to prevent osteoporosis by maintaining a healthy bone mass dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, black beans, salmon, almonds
glucosamine may relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis in patients with low back pain supplement form often taken with chondroitin
magnesium maintains muscle tone and bone density whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, bananas, green leafy vegetables
omega-3 fatty acids may reduce inflammation and pain flaxseed and its oil, walnuts and their oil, chia seeds, hemp hearts, fish oils, wild salmon, mackerel, anchovies
vitamin A helps prevent osteoporosis and accelerates the healing of fractures dairy products, eggs, liver, cantaloupe, apricots, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach
vitamin C plays a role in the development of collagen, which promotes the healing of injured tendons, ligaments, and discs; keeps bones strong citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi fruit, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, green peppers, potatoes
vitamin D helps improve calcium absorption for strong bones

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