Alternative Solutions for Back Pain
Back pain is rampant in our society. Some sources claim that 80 percent of our population experience back pain at some point throughout our lives. Some patients with chronic back/neck pain find that chiropractic adjustments, or naturopathic physical manipulation, have given them relief from pain. Many others have tried cortisone injections or physical therapy. Sadly, patients even undergo spinal surgery only to find that the pain was unchanged, or worse, had progressed.
An influx of patients who are seeking an alternative to opiate-based pain medications like Vicodin, Percocet or oxycodone, seem to be increasing—some, because of the U.S. opiate epidemic, wherein doctors no longer feel safe within their license to prescribe opiates. These patients may feel left “high and dry”, with no other options to manage their pain.
Naturopathic doctors have many tools available beyond the aforementioned conventional approaches, to manage pain. Mind/body medicine, in which the doctor and patient participate in processes like guided visualization, meditation techniques and biofeedback, can be effective for treating pain. Acupuncture and bodywork modalities like the Rossiter System, craniosacral therapy, Feldenkrais Method and somatic re-education can be incredibly helpful for eliminating pain. Classical homeopathy, when the right homeopathic remedy is carefully selected and taken properly, can stimulate self-healing in a way that may completely extinguish pain. Herbal medicine is another modality, rich in history and vast in array, which can treat pain.
Contrast hydrotherapy is another powerful naturopathic technique that can easily be added to any pain management regimen: beginning with 4 minutes of moist heat to the painful area, followed by 1 minute of damp cold, repeat for a total of 5 rounds of hot/cold. A steaming hot towel wrung out well, alternating with a towel wrung out in ice water works best, although a heating pad and ice pack are less labor intensive and may be used as well.
The heat dilates blood vessels, bringing fresh, oxygenated, nourishing blood to the area. A short cold application then constricts the vessels, pushing the blood through the painful area. Add more heat to dilate the vessels and bring more nourishing blood to the tissue, feeding the nerves, then cold to constrict and push the blood and lymphatic fluid through, to clear out inflammation. This is a very simple therapy, but extremely effective for reducing pain and promoting healing, especially when practiced regularly.
One of the most overlooked, yet impactful, ways to squelch pain is simply: diet. When people hear the word “diet”, often we think of weight loss programs. Although losing weight may be helpful for back pain, in reducing the overall load that our bones and muscles have to carry, “diet”, here, refers to the quality of food we eat rather than a means to lose weight. Painful medical conditions like rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, that are causing back or joint pain in general, have an inflammatory component. Reducing the body’s overall inflammation levels systemically, by eating wholesome anti-inflammatory foods, truly works to reduce pain and increase mobility.
A simple internet search for “anti-inflammatory diet” yields a plethora of resources and guidelines. You’ll find fancy lingo like bioflavonoids, phytonutrients and polyphenols, as authors attempt to convey information about the beneficial components of healthy eating that nutritional research continues to reveal. Carotenoids in veggies like carrots, anthocyanins found in dark berries, quercetin in onions and olive oil, lycopene in tomatoes—these are a just a few of the antioxidant/anti-inflammatory micronutrients found in fruits and veggies that are healing and regenerative.
Patients may need reminding, when attention to diet turns to examination of specific nutrients’ physiological effects, that an orange, for example, is made up of about 10,000 different biochemical constituents, but only 200 or so of those have been identified. This illustrates a generality in current medical science: we know enough to know that we don’t know it all. In other words, although the scientific research is helpful in validating the medical, nutritional importance of eating an anti-inflammatory diet, trusting in the innate wisdom of nature is a surer bet.
The more “processed” a food is (difficult to pronounce ingredients are a tell-tale sign), the worse it is for your health generally. Food labeling laws don’t require that companies even list the entirety of all the additives that could be in their “foods”. If a product isn’t labeled organic or GMO-free, then it most likely has been sprayed with pesticides, and probably contaminated with any number of inflammatory chemicals. Eliminating the big culprits—refined sugar, refined grains, factory farmed meats and dairy and processed “conventional” foods—will greatly improve any inflammatory medical condition, including arthritis and back pain.
Last, but not least, medical marijuana (or more appropriately, medical cannabis) can be a wonderful addition to any protocol for treating chronic back pain or arthritis. All humans and some animals (including horses and dogs) have an “endocannabinoid system” that regulates many different aspects of our physiology, from pain signaling to inflammation, present even in the synovial membrane of joints. Cannabinoids are molecules found in the cannabis plant that may mimic our own endocannabinoids, bind to receptors found in our endocannabinoid system, and effect change in the body and mind.
THC and CBD are two cannabinoids, out of many identified and studied by researchers, that have gotten the most attention. Both have anti-inflammatory and pain mitigating effects. Local application of cannabis, in a balm or other topical preparation, can be surprisingly efficacious for reducing pain—especially when combined with careful internal dosing via tincture or edible form.
Too often patients say things like, “My doctor says I just have to learn to live with the pain,” or, “I know this is only going to get worse as I get older.” But the truth is that there are a myriad of ways to treat pain. Our bodies communicate with us all the time, and learning to listen to and understand those sensations and cues can be a beautiful lifelong journey. We are constantly changing (literally, our cells are dying and regenerating continually), and the power of our minds and spirit to positively affect the direction of that change is awe-inspiring.
Dr. Jasmine May, NMD offers whole-being counseling for those seeking a shift from disease-centered medicine to individualized care, at Natural Healing Care Center, in Tucson. Herbs, homeopathy, nutrition and mind/body medicine are emphasized, with focus on empowering individuals to heal themselves. Connect at 520-323-0069 or NaturalHealingCareCenter.com. See ad, page 11.