Are there alternative treatments for back pain?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

There are a variety of alternative treatments for back pain, some with more evidence of effectiveness than others. Some people take herbal supplements with anti-inflammatory properties instead of the regular over-the-counter drugs. These include willow bark and devil's claw, as well as capsicum, which is applied directly to the back. Chiropractors and acupuncturists are popular specialists to visit for back pain. Many people believe that back pain can be relieved through mental relaxation or a combination of mental and bodily relaxation. Cognitive behavioral therapy and yoga are popular ways to treat back pain according to this idea.

Dr. Andrew C. Hecht, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon

Acupuncture, diets rich in foods with anti-inflammatory properties, even chiropractor services may help relieve back pain. In this video, Andy Hecht, MD, co-director of Spine Surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, discusses these treatments.

Watch as Integrative Medicine Specialist Dr. Roberta Lee suggests some alternative treatments for back pain.

Dr. Mosaraf Ali, MD
Integrative Medicine Specialist

If you have chronic back pain, you probably have a shelf full of pain-relievers—and you may have even considered surgery. But gentle treatments can be surprisingly effective. In this video, integrative medicine expert and Dr. Oz Show guest Mosaraf Ali discusses alternative treatments such as acupuncture and yoga, and how they can help you get relief.

Dr. Langston T. Holly, MD

There are some alternative treatments for low-back pain. Acupuncture, for example, has become more common in our Western culture. I didn’t study acupuncture in my medical training but patients have reported to me that it has helped to relieve their back pain. Another alternative treatment is spinal traction. A number of my patients have undergone stretching of their spine using a decompression-type apparatus and they have reported that they were very happy with the results.

Dr. Giuseppe (Joe) Moro, DC
Chiropractic Medicine Specialist

There are many "alternatives" to medication and surgery for back pain relief. The conservative, natural approaches chiropractors have been using for nearly over 100 years have been well documented in the literature in recent years. However, what you need to keep in mind is that there are many different causes of back pain. Causes could be as simple as a sprained/strained muscle, tendon or ligament to metastasized cancer (cancer that has spread to the spine) to infection in the kidneys referring pain to the low back, and anything in between.

Unlike physical therapists, yoga instructors, Rolfers and personal trainers, a chiropractor has many more years of educational training. Diagnosing the cause of your back pain falls well within the Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) "scope of practice." Keep in mind, however, your chiropractor may in fact order a physical therapist, yoga instructor, rolfer and or a personal trainer to provide the therapy. All these allied health and fitness professionals play an important role.

Another thing to keep in mind is it is oftentimes a combination of therapies and treatments that does the "trick." Be sure to look for a chiropractor who takes a comprehensive approach to resolving back pain. There is a time and place for the quick trip to the chiropractor for that quick adjustment, but most of the time, for the chronic back pain sufferer, this is not the case.

The chiropractor will recommend what he/she believes to be the most effective and appropriate treatment plan. I recommend, when chosing a chiropractor, if you don't already have one, that you look for physical therapy modalities around the chiropractor's office (physical therapy equipment such as ultrasound machines, lasers, rehab equipment, traction/spinal decompression equipment, nutritional products, etc.).

Your doctor of chiropractic may decided not to treat your back pain with any of that equipment, or maybe not even at all. Your chiropractor may even make a referral to a surgeon. However, keep an eye out for that kind of equipment in a chiropractic clinic. This equipment in the office speaks volumes! It will let you know that your chiropractor takes a comprehensive approach to health issues. Again, most of the time, it is a combination of different treatments that resolves the chronic back pain case.

Dr. Randy Rosenthal, DC
Chiropractic Medicine Specialist

Chiropractic care is an alternative treatment for back pain. The number one diagnosis for chiropractors is back pain. Chiropractors provide many treatments for back pain relief, such as spinal manipulation, intersegmental traction therapy, ultrasound therapy, electrical muscle stimulation therapy, spinal decompression therapy, flexion/distraction therapy, therapeutic exercises, foot orthotic stabilizers and kinesio-tape therapy.

What sets chiropractors aside from other physicians is spinal manipulation therapy. Spinal manipulation therapy involves low force pressure through a specific plane of motion of a spinal or peripheral joint, in order to reduce spinal fixation/restriction to help improve spinal mobility. Most back pain originates from spinal misalignment. If the structure of the spine is out of alignment "spinal rotation/fixation", then manipulation of that vertebral segment can help relieve the stress in which that segment is placing on the nerves of that specific area.

Dr. Henry McCann, DAOM
Alternative & Complementary Medicine Specialist

There are many alternative treatments for back pain, and of the oldest is acupuncture. For almost 2,000 years acupuncture has been used to treat all types of back pain, from injury to chronic arthritis. Modern research has also proven the effectiveness of acupuncture for back pain. In 2007, the Archives of Internal Medicine published a large study of treating back pain with acupuncture that looked at over 1,000 patients. The results showed that not only was acupuncture effective for back pain, but it was almost twice as effective as regular treatments.

Alternative treatments include acupuncture, chiropractic care with strengthening exercises, massage, as well as other types of physical exercise. Although medical evidence is inconclusive about the benefits of some of these and other therapies, I’ve had several of my patients try them and say that they have gotten some relief. Whether or not they would have gotten better with or without those alternative treatments, we may never know, but in general, as long as it’s not a serious spine condition or any serious neurological issue, I am certainly willing to let my patients try conservative alternative treatments.

Brian Yee
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Specialist

Even though physical therapy is not considered as an ‘alternative treatment’, what a specific physical therapist provides may be an alternative to the traditional regimen of hot/cold packs, electrical stimulation, traction and basic exercises to improve core stability.

At our facility, we determine the type or category of pain the patient is experiencing, as well what factors are contributing to the pain. This can include joint, nerves or soft-tissue tissue pathologies. We also assess muscle and movement control patterns that can cause undue stress on the back. We then investigate if there are other factors such as vitamin/hormonal deficiencies, food allergies or other systemic issues that could potentially be a source of back pain.

Once this is determined, a treatment plan is implemented that encompasses the best evidence-based research to correct the contributing factors. This can include ‘alternative’ techniques such as intramuscular manual therapy (formerly known as trigger point dry needling), nerve rehabilitation techniques and utilizing real-time ultrasound imaging to visualize proper muscle control around the spine.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.