What Causes Back Pain?
An estimated 90% of North Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives, usually in the lower back. Back pain can come on suddenly or slowly, be mild or stabbing, be intermittent or constant, and be localized or radiating. Back pain is more common among women than men, and most common in those aged 35 to 55. Risk factors for developing back pain are being overweight, being pregnant, being stressed or depressed, being inactive, and engaging in strenuous physical work or exercise.
There are a multitude of causes for back pain. Back pain often occurs as a result of a problem with the bones, muscles, nerves, ligaments, tendons, discs or cartilage in our backs. Back pain can also be caused by strain, infection, disease, an unsupportive mattress, poor posture, muscle tension, accident or injury (such as from whiplash or improper lifting), wearing the wrong shoes, or sitting long periods in one position, as when at a desk or driving long distances.
Pain that’s worse in the morning and improves with stretching and/or movement is an indication of a muscle injury. Pain that radiates down the back of one or both legs is a sign of sciatica – caused by compression or irriation of the sciatic nerve. Very often, the specific cause of back pain can’t be identified.
Back pain is not normally serious, and most people find they can resume normal activities within a few weeks, even without treatment. Severe back pain that occurs following an accident or injury, or back pain accompanied by fever, weight loss, numbness or tingling, difficulty urinating, bladder or bowel incontinence, or pain or weakness in the legs should be assessed by a medical professional. Back pain that lasts more than three months also warrants a trip to the doctor.
Strengthening your back muscles, proper lifting techniques (with knees bent, back straight, and using the legs to lift), and a good mattress (I prefer natural latex) can all help avoid back pain. If you see a chiropractor, I recommend you see one trained in advanced techniques like Active Release Technique (A.R.T.) and functional movement, rather than just ‘cracking’ techniques.
Now let’s get into some DIY remedies that you can do at home and that can bring great relief…
Natural Remedies For Back Pain
Natural treatments for muscle, tendon and ligament pain do not involve masking the pain so you can carry on with your day as usual. As renowned chiropractor Dr. Ben Kim says:
“Acetaminophen primarily decreases registration of pain in your brain. It doesn’t decrease inflammation outside of your central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). So if you continue to burden injured tissues while taking acetaminophen to numb your senses, you will almost certainly prolong recovery time and possibly cause long term damage.”
Contrary to popular advice, Dr. Ben Kim also does NOT recommend you use ice to bring down inflammation – and his reasoning makes perfect sense to me:
“Inflammation is a process that you want to proceed in full force after experiencing any soft tissue injury. Inflammation brings blood, nutrients, white blood cells, and several natural chemicals that work together to repair injured tissues one cell at a time.
If you deny injured tissues a full bout of inflammation, it’s quite possible that the tissues won’t return to full strength, especially if they’ve been injured before. Which is to say that by suppressing inflammation, you predispose an injured area to further injury. When this principle is repeatedly ignored, the result is reduced strength and flexibility for the long term. This is why I don’t typically recommend using ice to decrease inflammation in most cases of acute muscular or ligamentous injury.”
Wholistic treatments address the underlying causes of pain and inflammation and help the body to speed healing. Here are the most effective treatments I have found – that have all been tried and tested by myself and my family members:
1. Topical Arnica Cream or Gel
This homeopathic remedy provides instant relief from aches, bruises, sprains and tissue damage. I’ve used it after all 3 childbirths, my husband and son use it after soccer injuries. Just rub the cream or gel directly onto the skin of the affected area – I prefer the cream as I find the gel a bit sticky. Traumeel is another excellent topical cream that contains arnica along with other powerful homeopathic remedies.
2. White Willow Bark
This is a natural painkiller derived from willow trees. It was first used by Native Indians who boiled the bark into a tea and drank it. Aspirin is derived from white willow bark. BUT, white willow bark won’t cause intestinal bleeding, or constrict your rectum (often causing constipation) like Aspirin will.
For kids, or elderly, who can’t swallow pills, you can mix the white willow bark with organic cocoa butter and mold into suppositories for rectal insertion. Absorption is just as fast from rectal tissue – perhaps even faster – than swallowing. If you have active IBD, where your gut lining is already ulcerated or inflamed, rectal absorption is the best application method, as it completely bypasses the digestive system.
3. Warm Castor Oil Pack
castor oil penetrates deep into the tissues and stimulates the lymphatic system, to get the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. As Dr. Carolyn Dean MD ND says, “Castor oil packs increase circulation to an area and stimulate the lymphatic system to mobilize toxins aiding in detoxification. They are excellent for organ pain, especially of the liver, pancreas and kidneys and help relieve muscle spasms.”
Due to its ability to increase circulation, castor oil also helps to break up adhesions and scar tissue – which can often be a cause of pain or repeated injury due to restriction. A castor oil pack has many applications and has also been used in cases such as non-malignant uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, headaches, liver disorders, constipation, diarrhea, intestinal disorders, gallbladder inflammation or stones, poor elimination, night time urinary frequency, inflamed joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons and general detoxification.
My mother once injured her back moving extra furniture down into their crawl space basement. She literally couldn’t get out of bed and had to crawl to the bathroom. I came over and applied a hot castor oil pack to the area of her back that hurt, which she kept on for 3 hours and then went to sleep. In the morning, she could get up and walk around. She did the pack herself 2 more times, and then once the following day, and then she was back to normal.
Just remember to use a cold-pressed castor oil and 100% cotton flannel (or wool) – no synthetics. You can use either a hot water bottle or a heating pad as the heat source. Here are detailed instructions:
Castor Oil Pack Components:
- Cold-Pressed Castor oil.
- Two sheets of plastic (garbage bags OK).
- 1 yard cotton or wool flannel.
- Heating pad (if indicated).
- Large old bath towel.
- 3 safety pins.
Preparing a Castor Oil Pack
Cut a piece of plastic that will cover the flannel with at least 1 to 2 inches extra around the border of the flannel. Drizzle approximately 1/4 cup of castor oil onto the flannel, then fold it in half to saturate. The pack should not be dripping with oil – it should have just enough oil to make a slight oil mark on furniture, as if you were going to polish it.
NOTE: The first couple of weeks you use the pack you will have to apply a tablespoon or so of oil about every 3 to 4 days. Eventually the pack will be saturated enough that reapplication of oil should only be needed every couple of weeks.
Lay out an old towel on the surface you will be lying on. Castor oil stains, and you want to avoid getting it on sheets, carpet, or clothing. Lie on your back and place the saturated flannel on your abdomen. Cover the flannel with plastic. Then place the thin dish towel or old cloth over the plastic. Place a hot water bottle or heating pad over the thin towel and plastic, and wrap the bath towel around you to hold it all snug.
Relax for 30 to 60 minutes. This is an excellent time to practice visualization, meditation, or deep breathing exercises, listen to classical music or sleep – or to watch a good movie!
When finished, you can remove the oil with warm water and soap in the shower. I prefer to just wipe my abdomen with an old towel and leave the oil on my skin to be completely absorbed while I sleep (I apply the pack at night, before bed – but I sleep on a towel or old sheets, as even the oil residue can stain).
Store the pack in a large zip-lock bag. You can reuse it many times, adding more oil as needed to keep the pack saturated. Replace the pack after it begins to change color (usually several months). Do not wash the flannel – just throw it out.
Yoga can be very helpful for back pain. Or, it can be the cause of back pain! Listen to your body and don’t attempt a stretch or hold a pose if it hurts. I’ve done yoga for over 25 years and the #1 stretch that injures people’s backs is doing a forward bend – especially if you lock your knees.
When you do a forward bend – seated or standing – you must only bend from your hips, no part of your spine should bend or round-over. So for most people, they should put a bolster under their knees for forward bend, and then hinge forward from your hips. And if standing, then bend your knees and don’t use your arms to pull your spine towards your legs – just hinge at the hips, straight back, and hang naturally.
Look for a video or yoga class that is either specifically geared to resolving back pain, or one that is called ‘therapeutic’ yoga.