A waste-free approach for an aching back that is as good for the pain as it is for the planet.
Lower-back pain is a pain in the neck, so to speak. It ruffles the feathers and rattles the cage. It can last from days to years, it can be distracting at best and debilitating at worst. And it’s not just a problem for stressed-out over-worked Americans, it has a far-reaching grasp:
"It's a universal experience. You'd be a really uncommon person never to have had an episode of back pain," says Chris Maher, a researcher at the University of Sydney in Australia and an author on a recent study tackling the issue. "It's a common problem across the whole of the globe," says he.
To help soothe the beast, we seem to lean towards what NPR calls “the gizmos” … think ergonomic chairs and special shoe inserts and Velcro back belts. Yet according to Maher and the data they pored over, none of these generally work to prevent pain. We always want the easy way – primarily in the guise of a commercial product – when in fact the best way to prevent lower-back pain, the study concludes, is exercise. Yes, nobody wants to hear it, but exercise. And to make it even more effective, add in a dose of education.
Maher and his team analyzed 21 international studies, involving over 30,000 participants, on the treatment and prevention of back pain.
They discovered that back belts and insoles didn’t seem to make much of a difference when all was said and done; but exercise “reduced the risk of repeated low-back pain in the year following an episode between 25 and 40 percent,” reports NPR.
And type of exercise isn’t important as is exercise itself; any kind can help, notes NPR, whether it’s core strengthening, aerobic exercise, or flexibility and stretching.
Acupuncturist Esther Gokhale (who was not involved with the study) has spent much of her life studying back pain and came up with a similar theory of her own, as we wrote about last year in 5 simple exercises for back pain. She designed a series of exercises based on indigenous people whose backs, “took a beating; people who carried heavy loads on their heads, who stooped for hours collecting things, who sat on the ground doing handwork all day – and they didn’t experience aching backs.” And they seem to work. We all want the simple fix, but sometimes we really do have to do some work.
"If there were a pill out there that could reduce your risk of future episodes of back pain by 30 percent, I'd probably be seeing ads on television every night," says Dr. Tim Carey from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in an essay co-published with the study.
Yet health care practitioners don’t prescribe exercise nearly enough even though it’s such an effective preventative. In fact, Carey says, fewer than 50 percent of back-aching patients use exercise to help, even if they have long-term back pain. More popular prescriptions included “passive treatments,” notes Carey, like ultrasound or traction treatments, back belts and orthotic insoles. "Prescribing ineffective treatments for patients may actually distract them and give them a false sense of security away from treatments that are actually beneficial."
The discrepancy between what's most effective and what's most prescribed highlights a bigger problem, adds NPR: “The health industry is centered on sellable products, and exercise isn't one.”