Plagued by an Aching Back?
Q. What do I do for lower back pain?
Chronic back pain is often caused by unbalanced nervous control of the musculature, which triggers muscle contraction, reduction of normal blood supply, and inflammation. In most cases, it's not directly caused by structural injury, although injury can create a focal point for the neuromuscular imbalance.
What you're feeling is the end of a chain of nervous-system events that starts in your brain and leads to pain in your back. Because the nervous system is connected to the mind and the emotions, healing is best directed there, the root of the trouble. This isn't saying that your pain is all in your head, but that the vicious cycle of muscle spasm often has an emotional basis. John Sarno, MD, calls most cases of chronic back pain "tension myositis syndrome," referring to psychosomatic inflammation of the muscles. He wrote a great book on the subject called "Healing Back Pain " (New York, Warner Books, 1991).
So rather than looking to chiropractors, osteopaths, acupuncturists, or massage practitioners to cure your pain, I'd try to understand the real nature of the problem and consider mental and emotional changes. Sometimes it may do the trick just to understand that the pain can depart once your brain stops sending the wrong messages to your back. Think about restructuring the patterns of thinking, feeling, and managing stress that lead your nervous system to spasm.
You can take steps to strengthen your back and improve flexibility in the muscles that contribute to the pain. Yoga is a wonderful way to improve flexibility and balance your nervous system. Stretches that target your hamstrings are a good way to make sure your back gets the support it needs. Abdominal strengthening exercises will also help.
The way you sit is important, too, especially if you spend long days at a computer or a desk. Sit a bit forward on your chair, with your knees comfortably apart and heels on the floor, your pelvis rotated slightly forward with your body balanced on top. If you place a rolled-up towel under your tailbone, it will help you achieve a good sitting posture. Don't puff out your chest; that's hard on your back, too.
There's also a link between back pain and diet. One study found that arteries with a high amount of plaque deposits - avoidable with a low-fat diet - can't deliver as much blood to the lower back, affecting disks, muscles, and nerves. There's also a good traditional Chinese home remedy for lower-back pain:
Mix 3 ounces freshly crushed walnuts, 6 ounces raw brown sugar, and 4 fluid ounces warm rice wine. Drink twice a day for one month.
If you have an episode of acute lower-back pain, use ice on the area as soon as you can. Chiropractic manipulation has also been shown to help. And keep in mind that almost everyone who suffers from acute back pain recovers within about a month without any treatment.