Holistic Treatment for Back Pain: Non-Surgical Options

Those of us with back pain need holistic and non-surgical solutions that carry less risk. This article will investigate some of these alternatives.

By 
Dr. Abigail Hirsch, Ph.D
Reviewed by 
Dr. Yoni Ashar, Ph.D
October 25, 2021
5
 min. read

You may have heard the statistic before. It’s frequently mentioned when people talk about back pain. But it bears repeating because it’s quite shocking if you stop and really think about it: Around 80% of Americans experience back pain at some point throughout their lives (1). This means that 8 in 10 people (most of us!) in the U.S. deal with pain in either their low or upper back. For some, this might be a one-time occurrence, but for others, it’s a chronic condition that persists for years.

There are many things we can do to prevent, alleviate, and treat this type of pain. Some remedies, like surgery, are more invasive and riskier than others. For example, surgery can potentially leave a patient with permanent nerve damage, blood clots, lung problems, infections, persistent pain, or tears, among many other pitfalls (2). No one wants to go through that. So it’s beneficial for those of us with back pain to seek a non-surgical and holistic treatment for back pain that carries less risk. This article will investigate some of these back surgery alternatives.

Back Surgery Alternatives 1 & 2: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) & Empowered Relief

Both Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a type of psychological therapy that was developed in the 1960s by Aaron T. Beck, and Empowered Relief, a pain management class developed at Stanford University (3), focus on the connection between a person’s mind and body. The general idea behind both is that if we change our thoughts and educate ourselves about pain, we will be more capable of reducing it and learning to live with it. And, in fact, CBT has been found to ease back pain; one study found that both function and pain relief improved by 58% and 45% respectively when CBT was administered to patients over eight weeks (4).

Another study that was recently published (5) compared the two mind-body methods to see which one was more effective. Keep in mind that CBT takes a lot more time and effort because it is typically taught to patients over multiple weeks, whereas Empowered Relief is a single-session class. The study discovered that one Empowered Relief class (two hours in length) was just as impactful to patients after three months as eight sessions (also two hours per class) of CBT. Patients experienced significant improvements in pain intensity, pain catastrophizing (the tendency to increase the threat of the pain and to feel helpless (6)), and pain interference (how patients rate the challenge of performing social, work, and daily tasks despite the pain (7)).

The key takeaways from this are that we may indeed be able to diminish the pain we feel, or at least learn how to cope with it more effectively, by controlling the way we think about it. The mind-body connection is real and an avenue for potential chronic back pain relief that should be explored. Secondly, while CBT is proven to be helpful, since there are barriers to accessing it (e.g., time, effort, finding the right doctor, etc.), we should also consider Empowered Relief as an option given that it requires significantly less time and so is much easier to complete.

Back Surgery Alternatives 3 & 4: Physical Therapy & Spinal Manipulation

Other non-surgical back pain alternative treatments to consider include physical therapy and spinal manipulation (also known as chiropractic manipulation). Physical therapy is used to treat those who are immobilized or limited in their flexibility and movement (8). When someone visits a physical therapist to relieve pain, regain balance, heal an injury, or improve movement, the therapist may treat them with different stretches, exercises, massages, and other therapies that incorporate heat, cold, water, ultrasounds, or electrical stimulation (9). 

When it comes to back pain management in particular, the stretches and exercises that a physical therapist might prescribe often serve to strengthen the back muscles and ease tension, which can reduce or eliminate the pain. According to a study published in BMC Health Services Research (10), people who went to physical therapists for low back pain were found to have less of a need to use other healthcare services down the line. 

Spinal manipulation, on the other hand, involves a trained and licensed chiropractor who uses their hands to massage and adjust the patient’s spine (11). While not for everyone (including those who have arthritis and osteoporosis), spinal manipulation has been found by several studies to help reduce back pain (12).  

Both physical therapy and spinal manipulation can aid in alleviating back pain, especially when used in conjunction with other lifestyle changes like making sure to sit and stand with a correct posture, wearing shoes that fit properly, exercising regularly, eating a good diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and keeping stress under control. All of these elements can work together to create an effective spine pain management care plan that prevents and reduces back pain.

Back Surgery Alternatives 5 & 6: Acupuncture & Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

When it comes to non-invasive alternative back pain relief, two other options include acupuncture and Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulations (TENS). A traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture refers to the use of thin needles being inserted in specific spots on the body (13). This is usually done to help with chronic pain from a variety of illnesses and diseases. A study published in The Journal of Pain (14) found that acupuncture is indeed effective when it comes to certain chronic ailments, including musculoskeletal pain.

TENS involves electrodes being placed on a patient’s back. Electrical impulses are sent through the electrodes to disrupt pain signals. Various studies (15) have supported the claim that TENS significantly assists in alleviating pain, particularly in the case of chronic low back pain.

While it’s unfortunate that so many people in the U.S. are impacted by back pain throughout their lives (if you recall, 80%!), the good news is that there are a lot of non-surgical treatments available that can play a part in preventing and/or treating this type of pain. From CBT and Empowered Relief classes to physical therapy and spinal manipulation to acupuncture and TENS, in addition to all of the lifestyle changes that can also help, we ultimately have a lot of choices and treatment options open to us if we take a holistic approach to back pain. 

If you struggle with back pain and need help pinpointing which treatment (or treatments!) might be best for you, contact Lin today. We will pair you with a compassionate and caring health coach who will learn about you, guide you, and design a personalized care plan just for you. At Lin, we want to help you move past your pain so you can experience a full and loving life. Contact us today.   


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