Got low back pain? Welcome to the club. Some 80 percent of Americans will experience it at some point, reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For up to 8 percent, the problem will be chronic, lasting three months or longer. Medicine, muscle relaxants, physical therapy and chiropractic care are mainstays in the quest for back pain relief. But there’s evidence natural remedies may help, too. One caveat: No one can say for sure how they help, and not everyone will benefit. But they’re worth a try. Here’s a look at the most promising.
Yoga. In a Boston University pilot study, back pain patients were given tips for spine-friendly moves (like the right way to lift or sit at a computer), and therapies like ice and heat. But some also attended hatha yoga classes weekly for 12 weeks and were encouraged to do a daily half-hour of yoga. At the end of the study, 67 percent of the yoga students enjoyed a major reduction in pain, use of medicine and disability. By contrast, just 40 percent of the non-yogis improved their ability to function and a scant 13 percent got pain relief or cut back on medicine. What’s more, while yoga practitioners no longer needed hard-core prescription painkillers, the non-yogis upped their usage from 10 to 33 percent. How does yoga help? It may condition muscles in the abs and buttocks—which support the spine—as well as the lower back, speculates researcher Dr. Robert B. Saper, director of integrative medicine at Boston Medical Center. Plus, yoga’s calming effects may ease pain.
Acupuncture. According to a 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 60 percent of back pain sufferers who had 10 acupuncture treatments over seven weeks were better able to do everyday activities; just 30 percent of those who got usual care could. One year later, up to 65 percent of acupuncture recipients were still doing well compared to half of those who didn’t get acupuncture. But even sham acupuncture, delivered by a toothpick, helped. It’s unclear whether the treatment, actual or sham, has a placebo effect, or whether sham therapy affects the same neurotransmitters as the real deal, notes study co-author Dr. Richard Deyo, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
Heat therapy. An over-the-counter wrap—which delivers continuous low-level heat—slashed the intensity of garden-variety back pain by 52 percent, reported researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. All 43 people in the study took pain medicine as needed but 25 also wore heat wraps eight hours a day for three consecutive days. Two weeks after the study ended, “the benefit persisted,” says Dr. Edward J. Bernacki, study leader and director of occupational medicine.
Posture work. The Alexander Technique (AT), which releases tension and improves posture, balance and movement, has short- and long-term back benefits, according to a British study. Compared with a group who received usual care, patients who had 24 lessons in the Alexander Technique had 16 fewer days of pain after three months and 18 fewer days of pain after one year. A group receiving massages experienced 13 fewer days of pain after three months and only seven days after one year. Even a mere six lessons in AT resulted in 11 and 10 fewer painful days at the three month and one-year marks.