The Popular Alternatives

According to the landmark 1993 Harvard Medical School survey on alternative medicine, more than one-third of the people with back problems turn to alternative therapies for treatment. They most often reported using chiropractic and massage

Back and neck pain are two of the most common ailments. The pain may occur in the muscles, spinal joints, or nearby nerves. It can result from muscle strain, damaged spinal disks (the cushions between the vertebrae), poor posture, being overweight, pregnancy, some forms of arthritis, kidney infection, and several other factors.

More and more, allopathic doctors are beginning to recognize the benefits of several alternative therapies -- in particular chiropractic, osteopathy, and acupuncture -- in the treatment of back and neck pain.

Chiropractic Medicine for Back and Neck Pain

Chiropractic medicine, with its emphasis on the spine, is particularly effective in easing pain and improving function in the back and neck. The therapy works on the basis that misalignments in the vertebrae interfere with the nervous system, which prevents the body from operating at its peak. Adjustments and manipulations, performed with the chiropractor's hands, can return any misaligned vertebrae to their ideal positions. The body is then ready to take over the healing process.

A chiropractic examination includes palpations (examination with the hands) and sometimes X-rays. A treatment for back pain may include "short-lever" thrusts to specific points on the spine, often performed by the chiropractor once a week or more until the pain is reduced. Instruction for the patient in exercising and posture is also included.

Many research trials have shown that manipulation is an effective treatment for several types of lower-back pain, especially in cases in which the pain comes on strongly and suddenly. In addition, a survey of patients with lower-back pain reported that those who went to chiropractors were more satisfied with their treatment than those who saw medical doctors.

Only a trained practitioner is qualified to perform chiropractic techniques. In addition to adjustments, some chiropractors may add dietary changes and other therapies to their treatments.

Yoga for Back and Neck Pain

Yoga teaches good posture and deep, relaxed breathing and strengthens and limbers the muscles. All of these benefits can ease back and neck pain and prevent injuries and strains from recurring. The mix of yoga exercises and movements depends on the cause of the pain and where it is located. The sessions usually last from 20 to 60 minutes and are performed from once a week to every day. Of course, it's preferable to prevent back and neck pain with yoga rather than to treat it.

Here's a sample yoga exercise -- the "cat stretch" -- that's often recommended for lower-back pain:

  • Wear comfortable clothing.
  • Get on your hands and knees. Placing your hands shoulder distance apart and your knees hip distance apart, look straight ahead. Your arms and back should be straight, as if you are a table.
  • Inhale deeply.
  • As you exhale, slowly and gently arch your back up, tighten your stomach, and hang your head down. Hold for several seconds.
  • As you inhale, slowly and gently arch your back down and lift your head up. Hold this position for several seconds.
  • Repeat four times.
Bodywork for Back and Neck Pain

Several forms of bodywork can improve movement and posture, relieve pain, and aid in the healing process. Massage is perhaps the most recognized bodywork therapy for this type of pain. It relaxes muscles and increases blood circulation to the area (crucial to the healing process).

Several studies have shown that people with back pain receive positive results with forms of Swedish massage. In particular, deep-tissue massage can ease long-held muscle tension. As the name implies, it involves the application of firm pressure and slow strokes to muscle layers deep below the skin surface. One word of caution: The sudden and severe onset of pain will require time to heal before beginning deep-tissue massage treatments.

Other bodywork therapies can also be helpful in treating back and neck pain:

  • Alexander Technique offers simple, guided exercises that enhance posture, ease pain and tension, and allow better, more efficient use of the body.
  • Feldenkrais Method teaches new ways to move the body, helping to relax cramped or tense muscles.

In addition to specific exercises, the Alexander Technique offers tips to perform everyday activities better. The following are some of those tips:

  • Sit with your back firmly against the back of a chair. If the chair offers poor support, put a small pillow between your lower back and the chair.
  • Also, when sitting, pull the chair in close to the desk or table. Do not lean over the desk.
  • Beware of low handrails. Do not hunch your shoulders to grip them. Instead, keep good posture and only run your fingers along the rail to guide you.
Osteopathy for Back and Neck Pain

Osteopathic medicine holds much promise for people with back and neck pain. Similar to chiropractic, this therapy recognizes misalignments of the spine. Osteopathy takes a broad view of the body and sees misalignments as blocking healthy blood flow and nervous system functioning.

Treatment of back and neck pain can include manipulation of the back, arms, legs, and other joints, as well as massage and instructions on proper posture. The osteopath also looks to see if seemingly unrelated health problems, such as sinus problems, are contributing to the back or neck pain. Finally, the osteopath may prescribe drugs or surgery if necessary. Researchers have shown that osteopathic manipulation of the spine can restore function to backs that were immobilized by lower-back pain.

A licensed doctor of osteopathy is the only person qualified to use osteopathic manipulation. However, many specific therapies similar to osteopathic manipulation (chiropractic adjustment, naturopathic manipulation, bodywork techniques) can be prescribed for back and neck pain and are performed by various practitioners.