Ease Back Pain Without Surgery

By Patrick A. Roth, MD. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Back pain is rarely the result of a dramatic injury, but something that ebbs and flows, like a tension headache — but worse. When it comes to healing or caring for back pain, most patients actually have too many options. They may find themselves unable to decide where to start, and the number of potential triggers and different treatments for backache is staggering. Often, what works for one person with his specific type of discomfort will clearly not work for another.

It might take some time to find answers, so see a doctor who can steer you toward a specialist if necessary and then analyze what treatments will be most beneficial to you and your spine. Understand there’s not necessarily one correct treatment choice, so trust your instincts about your own back health and be prepared to change directions if you need to.

Remedies For Back Pain

Unless specific exercises directly hurt your back, most health care providers urge their back pain patients to sustain moderate exercise and activity every day to keep body weight in check and to strengthen the core muscles around the abdomen, hips and lower back. Other methods include:

Cross-training: In addition to basic walking and weight lifting to strengthen your spinal muscles and joints, many patients can boost their core muscles and see great results from power walking, stretching, strength training with kettle bells, doing Pilates or taking abdominal fitness classes. Ask a personal trainer or another health care provider to walk you through these prescribed moves, and try to stand up straight and maintain good posture throughout the day.

Acupuncture: Developed in China thousands of years ago, the art of needling has been known to ease the strain for some — but not all — back sufferers. While acupuncture and other alternative therapies may not be covered by health insurance, studies do show short-term benefits from weekly sessions for some back pain sufferers.

Mattress therapy: Chronic pain leads to poor sleep, and poor sleep can increase your pain threshold. Thus, the mattress can play a vital role in mitigating your back pain because one-third of your entire life is spent lying down on it. The kind of mattress (e.g., hard or soft) that helps ease personal pain is difficult to predict, but sleep quality is definitely important. Ask your doctor to walk you through what relaxation exercises and deep breathing drills to perform in order to get more restful (and less painful) sleep.

Ice and heat: Know when to use a hot or cold compress on your throbbing back. Start ice compresses if a sudden pain has been present for less than 72 hours, but use heat if your pain is chronic and discomfort lasts longer than three days. However, keep in mind that these are temporary solutions, and neither is likely to make a significant difference.

Analgesics: Used topically or injected, analgesic medications are applied directly to skin and are generally limited by how much of the drug can deeply penetrate your skin. Pain patches such as Lidoderm numb the skin and the afflicted areas — but only temporarily. Of course, milder non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as aspirin can be swallowed and taken regularly for pain relief.

Touch therapies: Sports massages, physical therapy and chiropractic care help many people treat back spasms, herniated discs and other conditions of the spine. Each case of back pain is so different than the next, however, and many of these non-surgical alternatives are based on trial and error. Ask your doctor about alternative therapies such as Rolfing (i.e., a massage technique that involves a series of sessions) or active release techniques (ART).

Epidural injections: Epidural injections involve a doctor administering a type of liquid steroid into spinal membranes that cover nerves in the spinal cord. Injections tend to work faster and longer than other therapies and medications, but most pain doctors won’t administer epidural injections more than three times in a six-month period due to steroidal toxicity.

Next Steps

  • I’m a neurosurgeon, and I’m here to tell you that back surgery isn’t your only option, and it should rarely be your first option. There are so many ways to temper your pain, and what works for some patients does not work for others. Take the time and make the effort to find out what works for you.
  • Recently, some of my patients have tried topical creams made of willow bark, which originates from white willow trees, and capsaicin cream, which is derived from chili peppers. Both create heat when applied to your back and may temporarily soothe your throbbing.

For Caregivers

  • Back pain can be extremely debilitating, and about eight of 10 people in the U.S. will suffer from disability at some point. If you or a loved one are afflicted, first recognize that everyone involved needs to formulate a plan together that jumpstarts a more active lifestyle. Regular exercise will naturally decrease the anxiety and depression that may accompany severe back pain.
  • In addition to regular exercise, encourage the patient to lose weight: Even 10 pounds of extra body weight (especially around the middle body area) can inflate pain sensations in the spine. In addition, listening empathetically to the person who is in pain and suggesting massage therapy or exploring a new medication can help.

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