As a former teacher and practitioner of Remedial Massage, I dealt with hundreds of cases of back pain. Around 80 % of people will suffer some form of back pain in their lives. Back pain takes the fun out of life as a simple movement of lifting, pushing, twisting, sitting can result in extreme discomfort. Low back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In some cases, the pain leads to anxiety and depression which in turn leads to other chronic ailments. Acute pain lasts for four weeks or less and is typically associated with sharper pain whereas chronic back pain is more gradual and is defined as lasting for at least three months.

Pharmaceuticals for back pain has side effects

When low back pain strikes, many folks resort to medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen even though research has now confirmed what many have known all along that patients taking anti-inflammatory drugs are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from gastrointestinal problems such as a stomach ulcer and bleeding, especially if taken in higher doses for long periods of time.

A compelling research study published in the British Medical Journal by Machado et al in 2017 summed up the problem with pharmaceutical medications. The researchers reviewed 35 randomised placebo-controlled trials from over 6,000 patients. The study concluded that NSAIDs reduced pain and disability, but provided clinically unimportant effects over placebo.  The researchers concluded, “At present, there are no simple analgesics that provide clinically important effects for spinal pain over placebo. There is an urgent need to develop new drug therapies for this condition’.

Are herbs any better for treating?

There are many herbal companies promoting their brands as the answer to back pain. While some may be of value for treating acute back pain often they too are not the answer. Family physicians are put in an awkward position by their patients who demand a ‘quick-fix’ pill. So, while we blame the pharmaceutical companies and the doctors;we as patients have to bear some responsibility for our actions.

The answer to back pain

Many integrative medicine doctors and practitioners of Complementary and Alternative Medicine practitioners will advocate therapies such as Massage therapy or acupuncture, or yoga and meditation.

Massage therapy is very effective providing you have a skilled and experienced practitioner who carries out a detailed clinical examination and then utilises one or more of a suite of proven remedial massage techniques  such as trigger point therapy, myofascial release,variations of deep tissue massage for non-inflammatory conditions, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) to name but a few.

Yoga and meditation also help provide relief for back pain (providing there is no degeneration). These asanas held in meditative poses help ease tension in the back, abdominal muscles, hips, hamstrings, and inner legs thus increasing strength in very specific muscles and muscle groups. Meditation itself is an important component that helps deal with the psychological aspects of pain.

Acupuncture will increase the qi and help release opioid peptides, alter secretion of neurotransmitters all of which will improve circulation in the muscles of the back.

Many people will also testify to the wonders of chiropractic treatment which involves spinal manipulation and treatment of surrounding structures. A chiropractic adjustment will increase the range of motion, reduce nerve irritability and improve function.

Take home message

Can low back pain be cured by a magic pill, whether it be a herbal or pharmaceutical medicine?

The answer is a definite no! So, what is the answer?

Complementary and Alternative Medicine is the best remedy for back pain. However, it is important to understand that each client will require 2 to 6 sessions for acute back pain and for a chronic back condition more is required. Having worked in an Integrative Medicine clinic I dealt with many difficult cases of chronic back pain but using strategic integrative healthcare approach of working with other skilled Complementary and Alternative Medicine practitioners often solved the problem.