Back Pain: What To Do About It
Back pain can range from a minor annoyance to debilitating pain that can last for weeks. After 12 years of practice and treating thousands of patients, I can safely say that back pain is one of the number one things that I see in the clinic.
While low back pain is the most common, many people also experience mid and upper-back pain. Back pain can have many causes ranging from muscle spasms, sciatica, sacroiliac inflammation, injury to the discs, the list goes on.
Every day, I see how back pain affects the quality of people’s lives.
It Disrupts Work
Many people who experience acute, debilitating back pain have to take days to weeks off from work. For those who can make it to the workplace, the pain can make it difficult to focus and do your job. Also, many people have to maintain a certain position while at work– standing, sitting, driving, typing, meetings, etc… This can make pain gradually worse throughout the day depending on what position or activity is exacerbating the pain.
It Disrupts Sleep
When patient’s tell me they can’t sleep due to their back pain, I know that this is the double-whammy. Sleep is necessary for healing, mood and energy. If pain is robbing you of sleep, you are going to suffer more. You are going to be cranky, tired and low energy. Your pain can increase and you will heal slower.
I once had a patient who was in extreme pain due to sciatica and he was not sleeping well. In fact, he was barely sleeping at all. He was an older gentlemen who, his whole life, made it a point to never complain. But his pain got so bad, he went to the ER. They gave him muscle relaxers. It barely touched the pain and he continued with pain-induced sleepless nights. He ended up back in the ER a few days later because he became delirious and could not speak coherently. At the time, his wife thought he was having a stroke. This experience was incredibly stressful for the entire family.
Thankfully, it was not a stroke. He was delirious from lack of sleep, all due to back pain. At the ER, they finally gave him stronger meds for several days and he was able to sleep a little better. His pain was now more dull, but it persisted.
He eventually found our clinic for treatment and with several treatments over the course of a few weeks, he got much better!
It Steals Your Energy
Being in pain steals your energy. Your body is crying out and will naturally put you into a “fight or flight” state in order to help protect you. Think of a wounded animal. Often animals are more aggressive when they are wounded, because the natural instinct is to protect themselves from further injury. Although we may not be conscious of how stressed we feel when back pain strikes, people often complain of being physically and emotionally drained after dealing with the pain all day long.
It Puts A Damper On Relationships
You can’t move very well, you are cranky, you haven’t slept. You may be financially stressed due to missing work from your back pain. You’re in a mood.
While most family members are very understanding, it can still add a little tension to the household. You can’t get to the store, throw a ball with your kid/grandkid, or enjoy dinner out with friends. You’re just too distracted by your discomfort or you flat-out just can’t move very well.
What to do?
There are many options. If you see your family doctor or internist, depending on specific symptoms, they will usually tell you to take an anti-inflammatory like Advil or Ibuprofen. They may tell you to wait it out. If the pain does not cease within a week or two, you will likely get a referral for physical therapy and/or an MRI.
While you wade through this process, there is a lot you can do to reduce pain, sleep better and speed up the healing process.
- Acupuncture. Acupuncture is my number one tool for fighting back pain. These tiny, hair-thin needles can work wonders for reducing pain in the moment as well as helping you heal faster. With acupuncture, we can reach deep areas in the muscle or near the joint/disc/nerve where massage or other surface modalities cannot reach. I often use electrical stimulation with the needles to produce a pain-reducing effect. Acupuncture is most effective if done in a series over the course of several weeks.
- Myofascial Decompression/Cupping. This is when we use a pneumatic cupping device to “decompress” tissue. The cups are placed over muscles where we create a vacuum by sucking the tissue into the cup. The cups are kept on for several minutes or moved around using oil on the area like a deep tissue massage. Cupping isn’t for everyone because some people find it uncomfortable and it usually leaves pink circles on the back for a few days. HOWEVER, I have many patients who absolutely, unequivocally love cupping treatments and they come back for regular cupping w/their acupuncture. They find it dramatically reducing muscle tension on their back, neck and shoulders.
- Heat Therapy. If your back pain is caused by muscle tension or back spasms, you may benefit from heat therapy. In my office we use far infrared lamps, hot compresses and warming oils with some massage techniques in the area of pain. If you are consistent with heat therapy it can help loosen up muscles and speed healing.
- Electrolytes. Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge in the bloodstream. These minerals help regulate muscle and nerve function. Its best to get adequate electrolytes all of the time, but especially crucial for muscle and nerve health when you are in pain. I prefer an electrolyte solution that doesn’t have any sugar or other aduterants. You can find them in liquid or powder form. Most electrolyte solutions have potassium, sodium chloride, magnesium and bicarbonate. Here are some by LYTEshow on amazon that are decent (no affiliation).
- Nutrition. I’m not a big fan of throwing a bunch of supplements at people. The longer I am in practice, the less I rely on supplements outside of electrolytes, which I find to actually be useful. You should be eating a nutrient-dense diet all the time, but when battling back pain I suggest upping your game. Eat more grass-fed meats, leafy green vegetables and healthy fats. If you really want to try an herb or supplement, I suggest:
- Corydalin. There is evidence that the Chinese herb corydalin has inflammation and pain-reducing properties. I carry a formulation of Corydalin in my office for the specific purpose of pain reduction.
Other things to consider:
- Physical Therapy. A good physical therapist can give you exercises to help strengthen and lengthen muscles for a more healthy back. It is key to get the right person who can help you keep and maintain your muscle strength.
- Chiropractic Therapy. Chiropractic adjustments can do wonders for back pain. Most Chiropractors are versed in sports medicine and a variety of orthopedic conditions. They see and treat back pain almost every day of their careers for years on end. In the right hands, you can get great relief.
- Movement. Back in the old days, your family MD would put you on bed rest if you had back pain. This is what he was trained to tell you from med school. This turned out to be terrible advice. We now know that staying active is a much better strategy. Of course, if you are in very bad pain, this may not be possible at first. But as your pain subsides, start with gentle walking and increase activity as the body allows.
- Sauna. The heat of the sauna will increase circulation and vascular flexibility. This translates to more nutrients to the areas that need it. If your gym has a dry or wet sauna, take a gentle walk on the treadmill (if you can) and then sit in the sauna for 10-15 minutes. Remember to take your electrolytes and drink a lot of water before you enter the sauna. Never sauna if you feel ill, light-headed or dizzy. If you don’t have access to a sauna, try a steaming hot bath if possible.
If you continue to experience flares of back pain every few months or years, I highly recommend core and glute strengthening exercises. You can learn these kinds of exercises multiple ways– through your personal trainer or physical therapist. I also recommend doing regular pilates or a yoga class that is specific to back health.
If you are in pain now and have questions or are seeking treatment, please don’t hesitate to call my office at 415-635-9933 or schedule your appointment here. I am happy to answer questions you have about your options and discuss what would be best for your situation. The office tends to get booked up fast, but we often reserve a few urgent appointment slots for those who need to be seen on the same-day! Good luck!