Back pain is a health concern for most people in the United States at some point in their lives and one of the most common reasons people miss work or visit the doctor.
Here is a glance at 15 popular natural remedies for back pain relief. Although further research is needed before any of these remedies can be recommended as a standard treatment for back pain, some of them may offer relief for mild to moderate back pain, particularly when part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
A 2008 study published in Spine found "strong evidence that acupuncture can be a useful supplement to other forms of conventional therapy" for low back pain. After analyzing 23 clinical trials with a total of 6,359 patients, the study authors also found "moderate evidence that acupuncture is more effective than no treatment" in relief of back pain. The authors note that more research is needed before acupuncture can be recommended over conventional therapies for back pain.
Just how does acupuncture work? According to traditional Chinese medicine, pain results from blocked energy along energy pathways of the body, which are unblocked when acupuncture needles are inserted along these invisible pathways. Acupuncture may release natural pain-relieving opioids, send signals to the sympathetic nervous system, and release neurochemicals and hormones.
If you want to try acupuncture, plan on going one to three times a week for several weeks initially. Acupuncture may be tax-deductible as a medical expense and some insurance plans pay for acupuncture.
2) Massage Therapy
In a 2009 research review published in Spine, researchers reviewed 13 clinical trials on the use of massage in treatment of back pain. The study authors concluded that massage "might be beneficial for patients with subacute and chronic nonspecific low back pain, especially when combined with exercises and education." Noting that more research is needed to confirm this conclusion, the authors call for further studies that might help determine whether massage is a cost-effective treatment for low back pain.
Back pain is one of most common reasons people visit a chiropractor. Doctors of chiropractic use chiropractic spinal manipulation to restore joint mobility. They manually apply a controlled force to joints that have become restricted by muscle injury, strain, inflammation, and pain. Manipulation is believed to relieve pain and muscle tightness and encourage healing.
Chiropractic care involving spinal manipulation appears to reduce symptoms and improve function in patients with chronic low back pain, acute low back pain, and sub-acute low back pain, according to a research review published in the Journal of Manipulative Physiological Therapeutics. In their analysis of 887 documents (including 64 clinical trials), the review's authors concluded that combining chiropractic care with exercise is "likely to speed and improve outcomes" and protect against future episodes of back pain.
4) Capsaicin Cream
Although you may not have heard of capsaicin before, if you've ever eaten a chili pepper and felt your mouth burn, you know exactly what capsaicin does. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in chili peppers.
When it is applied to the skin, capsaicin has been found to deplete substance P - a neurochemical that transmits pain - causing an analgesic effect.
For a 2011 research review published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, investigators sized up the available research on the use of topically applied capsaicin in treatment of several types of chronic pain. This included two clinical trials on back pain, both of which found that capsaicin helped reduce low back pain without causing notable side effects.
Capsaicin cream, also called capsicum cream, is available in drug stores, health food stores, and online. A typical dosage is 0.025% capsaicin cream applied four times a day. The most common side effect is a stinging or burning sensation in the area.
If possible, wear disposable gloves (available at drugstores) before applying the cream. Be careful not to touch the eye area or open skin. A tube or jar of capsaicin cream typically costs between $8 and $25.
5) Vitamin D
Chronic muscle pain can be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency. What's more, some research suggests that treatment with vitamin D supplements may lead to clinical improvement in back pain symptoms among people with low initial concentrations of vitamin D, according to a 2005 report published in the British Medical Journal.
An essential nutrient available in certain foods (such as fortified milk and fish with small bones), vitamin D is produced naturally by the body during exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays. But since it's difficult to obtain your recommended daily intake of D solely through dietary sources and sun exposure, many medical experts recommend increasing your vitamin D levels by taking a dietary supplement.
6) Anti-Inflammatory Herbs
Since inflammation is thought to play a role in the development of back pain, certain herbs thought to have anti-inflammatory effects may be useful for back pain relief.
White willow bark for instance, may have pain-relieving properties similar to aspirin. Known as salicin, a compound found in white willow bark is converted in the body to salicylic acid. (Similarly, aspirin is also converted to salicylic acid once in the body.) Salicylic acid is believed to be the active compound that relieves pain and inflammation.
Another herb sometimes used in treatment of back pain is devil's claw. Devil's claw contains harpagosides, which are chemical compounds found to possess anti-inflammatory properties.
In a 2007 research review published in Spine, both white willow bark and devil's claw were found to reduce pain more effectively than placebo. Since many of the trials included in the review were of poor quality, the review's authors call for further trials testing the use of these herbs against standard treatments for low back pain.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. Involved in over 300 biochemical reactions, it helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system, and preserves bones strength. Magnesium also helps regulate blood sugar levels, promotes normal blood pressure, and is known to be involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis.
Published in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology, a 2001 study of 82 patients with chronic low back pain found that use of mineral supplements was associated with a reduction in pain symptoms in 76 participants. In addition, the supplements were found to increase intracellular magnesium levels by 11 percent.
Yoga creates balance in the body through various poses that develop flexibility and strength. There's some evidence that taking up a yoga practice may help relieve back pain.
For a 2011 research review published in Clinical Rheumatology, investigators looked at seven clinical trials that tested the effects of yoga in patients in with low back pain. Of those studies, five suggested that yoga leads to a significantly greater reduction in low back pain than usual care, education, or conventional therapeutic exercises. However, the other two studies showed that yoga was no more effective than other types of care for low back pain.
In a 2008 report published in Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, researchers found that yoga may be helpful in managing low back pain, but note that patients should consult their health care providers for help in finding yoga instructors with experience in working with people with low back pain.