IMAGE If you have never suffered from low back pain, consider yourself one of the fortunate few. Back pain is a common reason for Americans under the age of 45 to limit their activity. It is also a common reason for visits to the doctor, pain medication use, and for surgery. There is some good news, though. Most people recover from an acute episode in a few days or weeks without much disruption to daily activities or medical treatment. For others, low back pain becomes a chronic or recurrent condition, often resulting in social and occupational disability.

Contributing Factors

The back is a strong column that is made up of of bones, nerves, ligaments, and muscles. This combination allows for a large range of motion while remaining strong enough to keep you upright and stable. A number of individual bones, called the vertebrae, run from just under the skull through to the tailbone. These bones are separated by cushioned discs and are held in place by strong bands of tissue called ligaments and by muscles. The bones create a tunnel that the spinal cord sits in. Nerves leave the spinal cord through several areas in the back to pass to the rest of the body. When all these structures are healthy, the back is in balance and works wells. Chronic pain is caused by strain or injury to one or all of these structures.

Chronic back pain is often due to wear and tear on the back from repetitive stress or strain. It can also develop or worsen because of weaknesses and imbalances in the back. Stress, strain, and imbalances can all place excess stress on supportive tissue like ligaments and muscles. When that tissue is irritated or inflamed it can put strain on nearby nerves. This can lead to a cycle of imbalance and injury that causes chronic pain. The low back is especially susceptible to chronic pain because it is involved in weight bearing of the upper body and lifting.

Common factors that can lead to chronic low back pain include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Occupational injuries, particularly if the work environment requires or allows use of improper body mechanics, such as bending or twisting when lifting
  • Poor posture
  • Poor ergonomics for sedentary workers
  • Medical conditions, such as arthritis, spinal stenosis, tumors, infections, or fractures (with or without osteoporosis)—that result in damage to bones
  • Spinal deformities, some of which may be present at birth
  • Prior surgery or back injury

Many times, there is no clear cause of low back pain.

Treatment Methods

According to evidence, what seems to matter is not which one, but how many treatments you use. In other words, interventions that address not only the physical aspects of the pain, but also its psychological, social, and occupational influences seem to be the most effective. An effective rehabilitation program may include:

  • Heat and cold application
  • Physical therapy
  • Exercise and strength training
  • Relaxation
  • Medications, such as
    • Pain and anti-inflammatory medications
    • Antidepressants
    • Muscle relaxants—short term use only
    • Opioid therapy—short term use if other treatment not working
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy(CBT)—to help you adjust behaviors to better cope with back pain
  • Balneotherapy—the use of hot and cold baths and spas
  • Occupational therapy

Alternative Therapies

Alternative therapies use non-conventional methods to manage or relieve back pain. More often than not, alternative therapies are used in combination with standard medical treatment.

Here are some commonly used alternative therapies to treat chronic low back pain:

There is some evidence that, at least in the short-term, each of these therapies may be effective at alleviating discomfort, improving function, and/or enhancing a sense of well-being. However, it is unclear if any one of these therapies is superior to the others or to physical therapy, the standard conventional treatment. Furthermore, it is unclear that any of these approaches provides more than short-term benefit.

Complex Solutions for Complex Problems

This combination of therapies makes a lot of sense. It is well known that an enormously complex range of factors, affecting many aspects of life, contribute to our experience of chronic pain. It is hard to imagine, then, that any single intervention—alternative or conventional—could succeed. An alternative therapy should be part of a multi-dimensional treatment strategy.

Chronic back pain can affect your ability to keep up with your normal activities. These treatments will help you slowly increase your activity level until over time.

Steps to Manage Chronic Pain

If you suffer from idiopathic chronic pain anywhere in your body consider the following steps:

  • Recognize that your condition is a complicated problem that cannot be treated in isolation. This is the first step to gaining control over your pain and your life.
  • Determine which facets of your pain have not been adequately addressed—psychological, social, occupational, and/or physical. Tackling this problem from only one perspective is unlikely to work.
  • Continue working with your doctor, and consider getting a referral to a doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, or chronic low back pain. These doctors may be in the best position to coordinate a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary treatment plan, whether or not it includes alternative therapies.
  • Strive to restore your ability to function. Your goal should be to resume your normal activities, not only to reduce your pain. Although the two are closely linked, the evidence suggests that focusing on function is the key to recovery.
  • Look both ways. Look ahead to visualize what it will be like to have no pain or disability. But also look back to measure your progress. It is easier to succeed when you see how far you have come.