4 Smart Spine Remedies & Avoiding the ‘Snake Oil’

There are countless back pain ‘remedies’ available today – but how effective are they?

As is the case with many “miracle” lotions, potions, and gadgets touting claims to restore health, most back pain “cures” on the market today aren’t worth the money, hassle, or headache. As a spine specialist, I know all too well the desperation many patients feel in attempting just about anything to provide the permanent back pain relief they desire. However, some marketed treatments are plain and simple – ‘snake oil.’ Perhaps they won’t harm, but they won’t necessarily help either. Others are flat-out dangerous and can be life-threatening, depending on their usage. However, the good news is that some back pain remedies can help spell relief when used consistently and under the advice of a trusted health care provider. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to non-invasive spine remedies.

First and foremost, I must include a disclaimer here. If you have been dealing with consistent, untreated back pain episodes that have lasted three months or longer, it’s time to visit your doctor for further evaluation. In some cases, it is also wise to seek counsel from a spine health specialist trained and experienced in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions affecting the spine. Chronic back pain (any back pain that has lasted three months or longer) is often a sign that an underlying spine issue must first be identified and addressed for appropriate, adequate, and lasting pain relief.

So, I want to start with what is studied to ‘work’ for occasional (and sometimes other) types of back pain, as long as you clear all of it with your doctor first.

Stretching – Gentle “yoga” stretches that help to elongate the spinal vertebrae and nourish surrounding muscles are a great way to help relieve everyday back pains and aches. When performed consistently over time, stretching may also help strengthen the spine and protect it from future injury.

Walking – Contrary to what some might think, staying immobile or being on “bed rest” after the acute phase of a back pain episode might do more harm than good. Recent research has indicated that a lack of movement can sometimes cause back pain to hang around longer than it would have if some light exercises were performed. Instead of babying your back once the most severe pain episode has passed, try to take a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. Gentle movements provide the necessary oxygen and blood flow to sore back muscles, which aids in the healing process.

Hydration – Many people don’t realize that drinking enough water has a substantial and positive effect on the spine. Proper hydration helps the cushions between each vertebra stay lubricated, which is essential for long-term spine health. If you know you don’t drink enough water, up your intake and see if it helps with the pain. 

Sleep – As with all the body’s systems, your spine needs adequate rest too. It is not only the duration of the rest that matters but also the quality. In terms of spine health, poorly or improperly cushioned pillows or mattresses can end up causing disrupted sleep or may make you wake in more pain than you went to bed with. Invest in bedding with the right firmness for you and your spine and aim for at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep most nights per week.

I don’t want to offer too much space to the myriad of ‘snake oil’ remedies for back pain that are likely coming through your news and social feeds on any given day, especially if you suffer from back pain and have researched it. What I will say about these treatments and gadgets is simple: if their claims at curing your back pain sound too good to be true, they probably are, and you should always go with your gut. If any of these items is something you might want to explore as a treatment option and passes your snake oil “sniff-test,” then ALWAYS talk to your doctor about it before you start whatever course of treatment you’re about to buy. Doing so will provide you the best possible outcome with the least amount of risk. And back pain or not, when it comes to your health – “talk to your doctor first” – is just plain good advice to follow.

Neel Anand, MD

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