Treat Back Pain without Painkillers

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Back pain is said to affect about one third of the adult population each year, one of the most common complaints seen by GPs. It is the UK’s leading cause of disability and one of the main reasons for work-related sickness absence. It currently costs the NHS and community care services more than £1 billion each year.


It’s literally a pain in the… back. In today’s fast paced world the simplest solution is to take a painkiller. But that’s not without risks or side effects, even taken infrequently. So, if you don’t want to pop a pill, what can you do?


In Chinese medical theory, pain is most often seen to be caused by a disruption in the flow of Qi (vital energy) and/or Blood, leading to stagnation. The solution is to restore flow. This is what several of the options below are based on:


  1. Apply warmth, not ice. This is not only in line with Chinese medical theory (warmth equals flow), even Western medical research has found that cold actually delays recovery, while warmth increases blood and lymph flow to the area, necessary for healing. The days have gone when ice was the go-to treatment to relieve pain, swelling and inflammation caused by injuries. Even Dr Gabe Mirkin, no longer supports the ice from his RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) recommendation. To keep your core warm, you can also wear a haramaki – a Japanese style tummy wrap.
  2. Have acupuncture. Perhaps even combined with bodywork or cupping to relieve some of the stagnation before needles are inserted (often at locations away from the site of pain), to affect energy flow. Research has shown that acupuncture can help at least as much as standard medical care, or can work as an adjunct to conventional care for patients with severe symptoms. A practitioner trained in Chinese medicine can also address the root cause to help prevent re-occurrence.
  3. Have bodywork, such as massage or osteopathy. Pain can be caused by tight muscles or something physically ‘stuck’. Back pain can also be referred from another area, such as a tight core, shortened hamstrings or out-of-alignment sacroiliac ligaments. A qualified bodyworker will be able to assess and treat or refer on if necessary.
  4. Exercise gently to get your energy moving. Too many of us spend hours sitting at our desk, then sit in the car, then slouch on the sofa at home. I don’t recommend intense exercise after long periods of inactivity, but gentle exercise can make all the difference, like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Yoga or Pilates. Another one to explore is Dr Eric Goodman’s Foundation Training, a very simple a set of 15 easy exercises. Whatever you choose, start slowly and listen to your body. It is wise to check with your GP before starting a new exercise routine.
  5. Manage stress. In Chinese medicine, emotions are also seen to stagnate, which is one explanation as to why they sometimes cause or aggravate pain. In an ideal world, it’s fine to feel any emotion, as long as we are able to let go and don’t get stuck with it. Could restoring the flow of your emotions resolve your pain? Dr John Sarno recommends addressing repressed emotions and stress in his book Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Connection.
  6. Relax for twenty minutes lying on a Yantra (acupressure) mat to increase local circulation. Or, if you have time, run a bath –  mild back pain is often soothed by Epsom salts.
  7. Take omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA), shown by studies to have comparable effects with anti-inflammatory medication, hence a safer alternative. Choose animal sources of Omega-3s because they are higher in EPA and DHA. Fish oil is good, and krill oil may be better – said to be more potent, more bio-available, less prone to oxidation, more sustainable and less contaminated with heavy metals for being lower in the food chain. And last but not least, click here to explore the benefits of turmeric as an anti-inflammatory.


Note: If you have back pain and suspect a more serious problem, perhaps due to its manifestation or a combination of symptoms, it is important that you have it assessed as soon as possible.


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