Back Pain

Whether it's an ache in the lower back or a twinge in the neck, back pain is the most widespread orthopedic condition in the United States, affecting about 80 percent of people.

Back pain is really not a condition — it's a symptom of an underlying problem in the muscles, nerves, and/or bones of the spine. In many cases, it's a sign of a mechanical problem, such as muscle tension: Maybe you've put undue strain on your back by lifting a heavy object improperly, suddenly twisting your back or neck, or maintaining poor posture for a long time while sitting or standing.

Another mechanical problem is a condition known as intervertebral disk degeneration, which is breakdown of the disks located between the bones, or vertebrae, of your spine. Back pain can also be the result of an injury or a condition like scoliosis (a curvature of the spine) or arthritis.

Sciatica is a type of back pain that involves the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back into the legs. Symptoms can include shooting pain, numbness, or tingling in the backside and one leg. Sciatica can occur during pregnancy, and it is also more common in people who are overweight and inactive. Wearing high heels or sleeping on a mattress that is too soft can also contribute to sciatica.

Treatment Options

Conventional medicine treats back pain in a few ways, depending on its cause and severity. For most minor cases, you'll be advised to take NSAIDs and try physical therapy, massage, or controlled exercise. If you're experiencing serious or chronic back pain (lasting longer than six weeks), be sure to talk with your health care provider.

Several herbs have been used traditionally to treat back pain — and are showing their abilities in modern laboratories as well. For example:

Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus)

Also known as guelder rose (among other names), this is a key Western herbal remedy for muscle cramps; it is effective against spasmodic back pain (it has analgesic, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory properties).

Devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens)

This is a classic South African remedy for pain and inflammation. Research shows that an oral extract can significantly reduce back pain.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger, which is an analgesic and anti-inflammatory, is used both topically and internally to treat muscle and joint pain. Modern research shows it works like the NSAIDs to reduce inflammation.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

The aromatic essential oil is a traditional remedy used to relax both muscles and mind. It's been proven effective at reducing stress as well as pain and inflammation.

Willow (Salix alba)

The bark from this tree contains salicin, a precursor of aspirin. Research has shown it to be an effective analgesic and a powerful weapon against back pain. In one study, willow extracts relieved pain better than the prescription drug rofecoxib (Vioxx).

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