Back pain is one of the most common health complaints reported by adults of all ages worldwide. Experts estimate that 80 percent of people will suffer back pain at some point in their lives, making it one of the most common reasons that employees miss work. Beyond the physical toll, back pain costs Americans between 50 and 100 billion dollars in health care costs and lost wages.
There are a number of causes for back pain, including sprains and strains, disc problems, nerve root compression, traumatic injury, osteoporosis, and stenosis, which is a narrowing of the bony openings that can compress spinal nerves. Your risk for having back pain increases with age and weight gain. In addition, people who have very physical occupations are at a higher risk of experiencing back pain, as are those workers who are bent over a screen, people who regularly hunch forward from back pack use, and those people with poor posture. Being physically out of shape also raises your risk for back problems.
Standard Western medical treatments for back pain include over the counter and prescription pain medications, anti-inflammatory medications, nerve block therapy, physical therapy, and in extreme cases, surgery. Many people suffering from back pain turn to complementary therapies, including acupuncture, either because they don’t want to take medications or undergo surgery, or because Western treatments haven’t worked for them.
There’s good news in that acupuncture can be beneficial for many people who suffer from back pain, and research is backing this up. The National Institutes of Health reports on several research studies that have found acupuncture to be effective in reducing back pain, and in some instances, better than standard Western treatments. While the actual mechanism of how acupuncture works for pain is not completely clear, there are some important physiological clues. Researchers have found that acupuncture ramps up the circulation of your body’s own pain-relieving opioids that are produced in the brain. In addition, acupuncture works to block the transmission of pain signals reaching your brain. Acupuncture also increases the concentration of inflammation-fighting white blood cells in the areas where acupuncture needles have been placed, which helps decrease pain and support healing.
Suffering from back pain isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. There are a number of steps that you can take to keep your back healthy and prevent pain. Among them:
- If you sit most of the day for your work, make sure your work space is ergonomic. Your chair should support your lower back and your feet should be able to rest flat on the floor, with your knees at a 90 degree angle. If possible, an adjustable desk that allows you to work while standing is a great option.
- Check your posture. When you’re standing, your body should line up—ears, shoulders, hips, and feet should stack up one below the other. If you slouch, regularly visualize a string coming out of the top of your head that pulls you straight upwards.
- What you wear on your feet matters. Shoes that are comfortable, with a low heel and a good arch are ideal. Avoid high heels, except for very special occasions, as they throw your spine out of alignment. Also, avoid flip flops; they offer no support, shorten your stride, and rotate your legs outward—all of which can strain your back muscles.
- Move your body. Lots of sitting and lying down weaken your back muscles. Exercise as simple as walking engage and strengthen the core muscles in your abdomen and back. In addition, physical activity increases circulation throughout your body, which translates into healthy muscles, ligaments, and discs.
- When you lift, do it the right way. Don’t lift a heavy object by bending over it and pulling upward; that’s a recipe for back strain. Instead, squat down to the level of the object you’re lifting, hold it close to your body and lift by straightening your legs. On the way up, don’t turn or twist, and keep the object below chin level.
- Eat to avoid back pain. A diet that packed with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fish can help reduce inflammation overall. Foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meat and fried foods can clog your arteries—including those in your back and spine—and those foods along with lots of sugar, alcohol and highly processed meals work to fuel inflammation.
- Rein in your stress. You may be aware that high stress hampers your digestion, suppresses your immune system, and raises your blood pressure. However, you may not know that lots of stress also tightens up the muscles in your back, neck, and shoulders. Over time, these tightened muscles can become painful knots, can compress nerves, and may make you more prone to back injuries. So do whatever it takes to bring a little calm into your life for the sake of your back.
The bottom line is that even with the best of practices, you may one day suffer from back pain. If that happens, consider acupuncture as a first line of treatment. Your practitioner can combine acupuncture with heat therapy, cupping, electrical stimulation, and a variety of other healing tools to bring you effective back pain relief and speed up the healing process.