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Back Pain Relief: An M.D.'s Top 5 Tips
Chopra Center Medical Director David Simon, M.D., says alternative healthcare remedies can be surprisingly effective at easing chronic back pain — or preventing it altogether. Here are his top five tips for getting relief without pills or surgery.
1. Stay open to all types of treatments and therapies
At different stages of many illnesses, there's a role for more holistic approaches and a role for more medical approaches. There are situations where, no matter what you do, surgery may be your best option. But every scientific study has said that most back pain can be managed effectively with lifestyle changes like those described here.
2. Lose excess weight to take pressure off the spine
One of the most important questions is whether you are carrying excess weight. Many people may say, I'm only 20 or 25 pounds overweight. But if the average person were suddenly asked to carry 25 pounds on their shoulders or back every day, you wouldn't be surprised if they had an aching back by the end of the day. Getting on a healthy dietary program and looking at how you're using food to fill other needs, particularly emotional needs, is really important.
3. Tone your torso
Equally important is focusing on the core muscles that support us against gravity — the abdominal muscles and the para-spinal muscles. Ever since homo sapiens decided to stand up on two legs, we’ve been fighting this force that keeps pulling us downward. As a result, people in modern society are not utilizing the muscles that counter gravity. Over time, that has a wear-and-tear effect on the discs and musculature.
In people who are sitting in their car or working at a desk throughout the day, those torso muscles get weaker and weaker. The pressure of gravity gets transmitted to the bones and discs — whereas, under healthy situations, your muscles are bearing a substantial part of that burden. So exercises that really strengthen those core muscles can make a major difference, both in healing from a current episode of back pain and in preventing pain in the future.
4. Try these yoga poses
There are some scientific studies looking at this, and it turns out that the postures that encourage you to extend your spine also strengthen the muscles, which has that beneficial anti-gravity effect. Try these three strengthening yoga poses:
- Cobra pose. Lying on your stomach, you gently lift your chest off the floor, pushing slightly with the hands. Most of the movement is actually from the chest.
- Lotus pose. Lying on your stomach, arch your back, reach your hands backward to grasp the tops of your thighs, and lift your legs upward off the floor as your knees bend and your feet curve toward your head.
- Bow pose. Lying on your stomach, reach back and grasp your ankles; lift your chest and legs off the floor.
- Extended side angle pose, seated twist, and child's pose.
In scientific studies, it's actually shown that if you do this for about 10 minutes twice a day, in six weeks you will have a better effect than most people who have undergone surgery.
5. Try both hot and cold therapy
I usually tell patients to try both hot and cold therapy. There's no scientific data that suggests that hot or cold really makes a lasting difference for back pain, but they do bring your attention to the area in pain. In our mindset, attention and intention are the most healing forces.
See if one [either cold or hot therapy] really feels better — but then use that time of focusing on your back to ask your back, what are you trying to tell me that I'm not listening to? Almost every chronic pain has an underlying message. It's the body's call for that attention, like a child: If the child asks for a parent's attention and doesn’t get it, the child will call louder.
David Simon is a neurologist who has been instrumental in pioneering a new integrative model of health. As the medical director and co-founder of the Chopra Center, he has worked closely with Deepak Chopra to forge a new synthesis between Eastern and Western thought, including co-authoring many of their best-selling books. www.chopra.com.