Is Your Back Aching?

I remember experiencing debilitating back pain twice in my life.

The first time was my junior year of college. I was driving from North Carolina to Minnesota with a friend. We spent two days in a low-to-the-ground Mercedes. By the time we got to Minnesota, I couldn't even stand up straight.

After a few days in bed and some muscle relaxants my dad prescribed, I was back to normal.

The second time was early on in medical school. I was putting a box of books into the backseat of a convertible. Suddenly, I felt shooting pains in my back. I went to the chiropractor and spent a few days in bed. Thankfully, I was able to play in the annual Eify Open (an annual golf tournament begun years ago by my brother and his friends) a couple of weeks later.

It was after the second time that I learned the benefits of being careful with my back. But I also learned how to lessen – and even prevent – back pain... by stretching.

This simple – and drug-free – solution shouldn't be surprising. Most back pain is related to stress or poor posture.

But back pain is dangerously overtreated.

Doctors are increasingly prescribing pain relievers – like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and narcotic pain relievers – and referring patients to CT and MRI scans.

According to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, doctors in 1999 wrote narcotic prescriptions for 19% of back-pain visits. That rose to 29% in 2010. In 1999, CT scan or MRI referrals occurred in 7% of back-pain visits and rose to 11% in 2010.

Pills and scans won't help either cause of back pain.

So before resorting to painkillers and CT scans, try these four proven ways to overcome your lower-back pain...

A study published this spring by the University of Washington (UW) found thatmeditation alleviated back pain better than painkillers.

The researchers had people suffering from back pain follow a 26-week program of stress-focused meditation. They also did some easy yoga poses as part of the program. These folks fared far better than those who took painkillers and muscle relaxants instead.

Most important, after 26 weeks, the people who practiced meditation continued to experience pain relief until the end of the study (at 52 weeks).

Now, meditation is a great way to handle stress, as we've discussed before. Pairing it with yoga shows some great results. In fact, an earlier UW study showed that yoga provided just as much benefit as exercise.

If yoga isn't your cup of tea though, try high-intensity interval training (HIIT). As we explained in an earlier issue, HIIT involves working out with high bursts of resistance. For instance, you can run for a few minutes, then all-out sprint for a few minutes. You keep repeating those repetitions for the length of the workout, which is only about 20 or 30 minutes total.

HIIT improves blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. It also increases something called "gastrointestinal transit speed." (This is how quickly something moves through your colon.) Improved GI transit speed reduces the risk of colon cancer as well.

HIIT eases arthritis, improves bone mineral density, and improves seniors' walking endurance and balance. Best of all, HIIT reduces back pain. It helps build up your core muscles and takes some of the pressure off your back.

Several studies featured in the book Body by Science demonstrated that using HIIT for strength training significantly reduced lower-back pain.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal published an article supporting another of my favorite fixes for lower-back pain – massage. Researchers randomly assigned subjects experiencing lower-back pain to one of four groups. These included comprehensive massage, soft-tissue massage, exercise with posture education, and placebo "laser" therapy. Each group had six sessions over the course of a month.

Participants in the massage groups had significantly less pain one month after the treatments. They also saw improvements to their mobility.

Finally, do what I do and try going upside down...

An inversion table secures your ankles and then tips backward, allowing you to hang upside down, letting you stretch and relax while taking pressure off your back and hips – which can also help if you have back pain.

Researchers from the Regional Neurosciences Centre in the U.K. found inversion therapy reduced the need for surgery in patients with lumbar discogenic disease (the breakdown of the discs that separate vertebrae in the lower part of your back).

We have an inversion table in our Baltimore office. Whenever I'm in town, I swing down to the basement and relax on it for about five minutes. These tables are a great way to get the blood flowing to stimulate your brain and refresh you.

Remember, if you have lower-back pain, try some of my recommended treatments first. And if you have tips for relieving back pain that you'd like to share, send them to us at [email protected].

What We're Reading...

  • Something different: An extremely rare side effect from jaw surgery... a British accent.