More than 100,000 Americans are hospitalized each year because of issues related to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). There are equally compelling statistics about the potential dangers of powerful opiate painkillers that are also sometimes prescribed for patients with back pain. This isn’t to say medication is inherently bad. When used properly, it can ease chronic discomfort, reduce swelling, and enhance quality of life enough to explore other treatment options or benefit more from physical therapy. However, if you’re experiencing occasional instances of spine-related pain, you may benefit from the following non-medicinal ways to prevent or relieve it.
1. Hot/Cold Therapy
Most instances of back pain are related to tense, knotted, overexerted, strained, or pulled muscles. A common way to soothe this type of discomfort is with the application of heat or cold. However, it’s important to know when to apply which one. For example, back pain from tight or pulled muscles may be worsened with cold applications, and heat applied to fresh injuries may increase inflammation.
Heat therapy stimulates the body’s natural healing process by increasing circulation. Feel for the affected muscle so you know where to apply heat with a heating pad, hot water bottle, or heating gel pack. Taking warm baths or showers may also be helpful.
Cold therapy tends to be better for newer sources of back pain since the cold temperature inhibits the production of certain chemicals that contribute to inflammation. However, applications of ice, cold water packs, or cooling gel may not be as effective for spine conditions aggravated by chronic inflammation.
Note: Heat/ice applications should be limited to 15-20 minutes at a time. The only exception is applications for severe strains, which may extend up to 2 hours when done safely.
2. Hamstring Stretches
Consisting of three muscles located along the back of each thigh, hamstrings can contribute to lower back pain when they are tight. If the tension is severe, it may affect movement in the pelvis, which can also place added pressure on the lumbar spine. Keep your hamstrings limber and flexible with regular stretching. Options include:
• Bending forward to touch your toes until you feel the stretch
• Leaning forward while resting on the floor with your arms extended toward your ankles
• Standing up with one foot resting on a book as you pivot forward with your arms up and the other leg slightly back
Lack of sleep has been linked to how pain is experienced and perceived. If you have pain, you may find yourself facing an interesting dilemma. On one hand, you could simply get more sleep. However, it’s not always easy to stay asleep when you’re periodically woken up by back pain. Instead of using NSAIDs or sleeping pills, naturally improve your sleep patterns by:
• Sleeping on your side with a pillow placed between your knees
• Placing a pillow below your knees if you’re a back sleeper
• Investing in a more supportive mattress
• Using bed wedges or full-body pillows to increase your comfort and support
4. Regular Exercise
It’s easy to get into the habit of avoiding exercise as much as possible when living with back pain. You should avoid strenuous exercise, but skipping exercise altogether can weaken muscles, tendons, and ligaments that normally ease the spine’s burden. Exercises such as walking and other low-impact activities like swimming, biking, and performing core muscle group exercises can control back pain by:
• Increasing the production of hormones (endorphins) with effects similar to certain painkillers
• Naturally boosting circulation
• Promoting fluid transfer between discs
• Strengthening back-supporting muscles
5. Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Because alcohol is a depressant, it can slow down circulation and hinder the body’s natural healing processes, which may contribute to back pain and disc damage. The relaxing effects of alcohol may loosen spine-supporting muscles enough to increase stress on your spine.
6. Healthy Eating
Any of the foods you consume on a regular basis can potentially affect inflammation, in both good ways and not-so-good ways. If your goal is keep inflammation-related back pain in check, avoid sugary treats, fatty and processed foods, and excessively starchy foods. Instead, regularly fill your plate with:
• Dark-colored fruits and veggies (e.g. carrots, berries, grapes)
• Nuts that aren’t salted or processed
• Lean proteins like skinless chicken and turkey
• Healthy, nutrient-rich fish with omega-3 fatty acids (e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel)
• Inflammation-fighting spices such as cinnamon, basil, turmeric, and garlic
7. Mental Distractions
There’s research suggesting constantly thinking about back pain, especially if it’s chronic, can make it seem worse. Take your mind off of your discomfort as much as possible by making an effort to enjoy your favorite activities. Even if you have to make some modifications, remaining active and involved may ease your stress and provide some pleasant distractions. Mental distraction can also involve:
• Mindful meditation
• Controlled breathing
• Guided imagery
• The rhythmic breathing and mental focus associated with disciplines like yoga and tai chi
While NSAIDs are meant to ease swelling around tissues, there’s evidence suggesting these medications may affect the production of lipids called prostaglandins that control circulation and inflammation. The potential problem with opiates is the way they affect chemical processes in the brain with long-term use. If your goal is to avoid turning to NSAIDs or opiates for back pain relief, another step you can take is to get an accurate diagnosis so the right treatment or pain management options can be recommended by a Santa Monica spine surgeon.
If you’re unable to get relief from your back pain naturally, consider surgical options such as cervical artificial disc replacement or lumbar disc replacement. Santa Monica patients can consult Dr. Hyun Bae at The Spine Institute to help them determine the right course of treatment for their back pain. Call 310-828-7757 today to schedule an appointment.