Back Pain


Back pain is considered any ache or sharp pain felt along the spine, though it is most common in the lower back. Back pain varies from individual to individual—it can be mild or severe, constant or intermittent, acute or chronic. Acute back pain is characterized as lasting from a day to a few weeks, and is usually caused by an injury. Back pain is considered chronic when it lasts for three months or longer.

Causes of Back Pain

Back pain is often cause by injury, either from participation in athletics, manual labor, or heavy lifting. These injuries often strain the back muscles, causing them to spasm and press on the nerves in and around the spine. Slipped discs, caused by bending or lifting, may also cause back pain when the disc that provides cushioning between vertebra slides towards the spine and presses on the nerves.

Other causes of back pain include arthritis, obesity (which puts undue pressure on the spine), lack of exercise (which weakens abdominal muscles), poor posture (which can cause the vertebrae to become misaligned), and even emotional stress. Other conditions may cause back pain as one of their symptoms, including fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, hernia, testicular torsion, ovarian cysts, pregnancy, certain infections, primary spinal tumors, and some cancers.

Some causes of back pain may be harder to identify. Sometimes, back pain is caused by a gradual buildup of tension or a number of small injuries which have accumulated.

Prevention of Back Pain

Back pain is most easily prevented by getting regular exercise. This reduces pressure on the back by strengthening the abdominal muscles and also keeping body weight low. Common back-strengthening exercises include walking, cycling, swimming, weight-lifting, and stretching. Individuals should also maintain good posture, avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time, take breaks during long drives, avoid shoes (such as ones with high heels) that do not provide proper support, avoid lifting objects which are too heavy, and use techniques to reduce emotional stress such as yoga and meditation.

Symptoms of Back Pain

Back pain is characterized by one or more of the following: a dull ache just above the waist, a sharp pain between the shoulders, or stiffness when waking up in the morning.

How the Condition is Diagnosed

Most back pain can be diagnosed by a doctor by examining a patient’s medical history and doing a routine physical exam. If diagnosis proves difficult, X-rays may need to be taken.

Back Pain Possible Treatments

For acute back pain, pain relief medication may be prescribed, along with steroids to reduce inflammation. Regular exercise may also help reduce pain. Muscle relaxants, often prescribed for back pain, do not cure pain, but merely serve as tranquilizers used to aid sleep.

A number of therapies may help reduce the symptoms of back pain. Spinal manipulation may reduce back pain, and chronic low-back pain may be reduced by massage. Acupuncture is a common treatment for back pain, thought it usually only provides relief in the short term. Other persons choose to see chiropractors, persons who specialize in treating back pain. Chiropractic sessions may cause more pain in the near term, but are often helpful for persons with mild back pain. Persons undergoing chiropractic treatment must be careful not to bend over or reach to the side, or they risk undoing any good that the treatment may have done. Persons usually need between 8 and 16 chiropractic sessions to achieve the desired result.

Preventing further injuries to the back usually means avoiding bending over and avoiding reaching to the side. Bending over is harmful because it puts a lot of pressure on the lower back due to poor leverage. Bending over and lifting can be especially harmful. Instead, individuals should focus on lifting with the legs, which are much stronger than the lower back. Reaching from the side produces a similar strain in the back, and should be carefully avoided.

Acupuncture is a common treatment for back pain. Initially, needles are placed away from the lower back, attempting to relax the lower back indirectly. Generally, between ten and twenty bi-weekly sessions may be needed to use acupuncture to effectively treat back pain. Studies show that acupuncture is a little less effective than chiropractic treatment in curing back pain, but it is also often substantially cheaper. Additionally, every individual’s back pain is unique, and some persons may respond better to acupuncture than to chiropractic treatment.

Red chili pepper (Capsicum) may have therapeutic effects for persons with back pain. Red chili peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin that is commonly used to relieve pain. Red chili peppers also cause the body to release endorphins, which dull or distract from pain. Chili pepper may be eaten with food or applied as a topical cream.

Another way to treat back pain is to take willow (Salix), or other forms of natural aspirin found in meadowsweet or wintergreen. Aspirin originally comes from herbal sources like willow bark, which contain compounds called salicylates that are used to create aspirin. Willow, wintergreen, and birch bark may all be used to create teas which will relieve lower back pain (in fact, Native Americans used birch bark in tea to relieve lower back pain long ago). Additionally, the oil of wintergreen may be used with massage as an external pain reliever.

To ease the muscle tightness associated with back pain, peppermint oil (Mentha piperita) and other types of mint oils may be applied to the back area. These oils contain menthol and camphor (also present in many over the counter medications) which serve to naturally loosen the muscles in the back. Camphor may also be found in spike lavender, hyssop, and coriander. Other essential oils may be used to relieve muscle spasms and back pain by adding a few drops of the oil to a few tablespoons of vegetable oil and then applying the mixture to the afflicted area. Oils that are rich in thymol and carvacrol, such as sage, rosemary, thyme, horsebalm, and mountain dittany, help muscles relax.  Oils may also be used in aromatherapy for back pain. Aromatherapists often recommend using oils from birch, lavender, black pepper, clary, ginger, and marjoram.


  1. Bratman, S. The Alternative Medicine Ratings Guide: an expert panel rates the best treatments for over 80 conditions, Prima Health A Division of Prima Publishing (1998)
  2. Brown, L. Alternative Medicine, NTC/Contemporary Publishing (1999)
  3. Deepak Chopra, M.D. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Celestial Arts (2002)
  4. Duke, J. The Green Pharmacy: Herbal remedies for common diseases and conditions from the world's foremost authority on healing herbs,Rodale Limited (2003)
  5. Nancy Allison. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines, The Rosen Publishing Group (1999)
  6. Servan-Schreiber, D. The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages, Rodale International Limited (2006)

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