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 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 however, low back pain becomes a chronic or recurrent condition, often resulting in considerable social and occupational disability.
Many factors contribute to low back pain, such as inadequate fitness, heavy lifting, and poor posture. But our evolutionary history is to blame for our susceptibility to this pain. At some point in the distant past, some of our ancestors decided to stand on two feet, presumably so their hands would be free to fashion tools and use them efficiently. While their reasons were good, going vertical was not without its drawbacks.
Walking around on all fours distributes the force of gravity evenly over the length of the spine. Standing up, however, concentrates this force in one location—the lumbosacral region, just north of the buttocks. Our vulnerability to low back pain is the price we pay for bipedal locomotion.
Several factors can contribute to persistent back pain:
Most cases of chronic back pain are idiopathic, meaning they have no clear explanation. Without a known cause, treatment is very difficult and often unsuccessful. This leads many people to alternative therapies. Below are among the most 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.
So, what then is the best treatment for chronic low back pain? 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 encompass:
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 therefore, 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.
If you suffer from idiopathic chronic pain anywhere in your body consider the following steps:
American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
American Society of Exercise Physiologists
Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology
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Last reviewed August 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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