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What You Should Do When Sudden Back Pain Strikes

When an episode of back pain strikes it is tempting to contact a health professional straight away. But there are some self-help measures you can take at home that may ease the immediate pain without the need to resort to specialist help.

If back pain strikes suddenly or you feel that a problem is imminent, it is worth trying the following “first-aid” measures.

For acute pain, lie down for a while. You can lie on a bed, providing it is not too soft, or on the floor on a sleeping bag or blankets. Being in a horizontal position places the least strain on your spine. There is no right or wrong way to lie. You can lie on your back, on your front or on your side -whichever is the least painful.

If your muscles are in spasm it may take you a while to ease yourself on to the bed or down on to the floor. Try sitting on the edge of the bed and then rolling slowly on to it, or use a support to help you get to the floor. Whether you are on the bed or the floor, do not prop yourself up on pillows. Try to make do with a single pillow to support your neck.

If you are lying on your back you may find that a rolled-up towel or a pillow in the small of your back and two or three pillows under your knees make you more comfortable. If you are lying on your side, a pillow between your knees will support the upper leg and prevent it from flopping over forward, which can twist your spine. Lying in bed or on the floor will help relax muscles that are in spasm and you should find that the pain will ease slowly or disappear completely while you are in this position.

Although bed rest is comfortable and provides relief from back pain, it is not a good idea for more than a few days at most. There are two reasons for this. First, muscle strength diminishes surprisingly quickly if you lie in bed. Second, rest is not as effective as other treatments to which it has been compared for pain relief, rate of recovery and days lost from work. The answer is to keep yourself moving as much as possible. Once the severe pain has eased, change position frequently and try to get up and move around every half an hour or so.

Pain relief
When the words “pain relief” are mentioned, many people think only of pills. But there are other ways of alleviating pain that can work alongside painkilling drugs.

Painkillers
Do not be afraid to take painkillers during an acute episode of back pain. Drugs such as aspirin, paracetamol or one of the other over-the-counter preparations can ease your symptoms and so help break the vicious circle of muscle spasm and pain. Never exceed the maximum dose of a painkiller and if your acute pain continues for more than three or four days consult your doctor.

Heat
Applying heat to the painful area of your back can often be helpful, especially for lower back pain. A hot water bottle in a cover or wrapped in a towel and placed at the small of your back while you are lying down or sitting can be soothing. Alternatively, use an electric heating pad. If you feel an attack of back pain coming on, try taking a hot shower to relax you before applying a hot water bottle or pad. Hot baths can also be soothing and relaxing for a painful back but during an episode of acute pain it may be difficult to lower yourself into the bath – and even more difficult to clamber out again.

Treating Chronic Back Pain with Osteopathy

Commonly recommended for the treatment of hack problems, osteopathy has become accepted by mainstream medicine to such an extent that is no longer considered an “alternative” therapy. In the United States in particular, osteopaths have the same professional status as medical doctors.

The physical manipulation of the skeletal system to maintain and regain health is believed to have been practised first in ancient Egypt. Throughout history a great number of manipulative techniques were developed in China, Japan, India and North and South America.

Hippocrates, in ancient Greece, described manipulation of the spine, as did Galen, the Greek-born physician of ancient Rome. The Dark Ages and Middle Ages in Europe saw healers known as bone-setters, who combined massage, manipulation and herbal remedies to treat the sick. The ancient manipulative healing techniques continued to be practised by the Arab civilizations of the Middle East.

However, as with many other traditional therapies, manipulation was all but forgotten in the excitement surrounding the rise of modern, drug-based medicine in the 19th century. Then, in 1874, Andrew Taylor Still devised osteopathy and manipulation was given a new lease of life.

Born in Virginia in 1828, Still was a conventional physician for 20 years and served in the Union Army as a surgeon’ with the rank of major during the American Civil War. In 1864, a year before the end of the war, three of Still’s children died in an epidemic of spinal meningitis. This tragedy rocked Still’s faith in conventional medicine and set him on the path toward a new form of holistic therapy to which he would devote the rest of his life.

Osteopathy and your back
Surveys of people using complementary therapies in Europe and the United States show that back pain and pain from other joints in the body are by far the most common reasons for seeking help outside conventional medicine. In addition, surveys of user satisfaction with complementary therapies invariably put osteopathy and chiropractic top of the list. In fact, these therapies are now almost wholly embraced by conventional practitioners as the most effective treatments for back pain. If your back pain is due to a mechanical problem, then these two forms of treatment are probably the therapies of choice for you.

Osteopaths regard the body as an integrated unit and believe that a problem in any area can have a knock-on effect causing dysfunction and pain elsewhere. For example, they believe that if a misaligned vertebra puts pressure on nearby nerves, this can lead to dysfunction of various internal organs as well as the glands that produce the body’s hormones. So, according to this view of the human body, once the misalignment in the spine is corrected the body is able to heal itself.

Osteopathy in practice
When you first consult an osteopath the practitioner will make his or her diagnosis of the cause of your back pain in two different ways.

In common with most other complementary therapists, the osteopath will first want to build up as complete a picture as possible of you and your symptoms. You will be asked when the problem started, where exactly you feel pain, whether it is permanent or intermittent, and you will be asked to try to describe the pain. Osteopaths believe that it is important to take into consideration all aspects of your health and lifestyle before making a diagnosis.

The osteopath will then carefully examine not only the painful area of your back but also the rest of your body, to determine whether problems elsewhere are causing or contributing to your pain. You may be developing problems in areas you would not normally associate with your back. The osteopath will check the movements of your joints and observe how your body responds to the normal demands of everyday life, such as sitting down, standing up and walking.

Once the diagnosis has been made, the osteopath will use various manipulative techniques to correct the problem. They can include flexing, stretching and massage. He or she may also suggest ways in which you can help yourself between consultations. Osteopathy is especially suitable for the treatment of back and neck pain, sciatica, sprains and strains and headaches.

Treating Back Pain with Yoga

Many people in the West used to think of yoga as an exotic practice from the Orient. Today, however, it is widely accepted and many enjoy its benefits.

The vision of yoga as something alien and Eastern dates from its introduction into the West toward the end of the 19th century. But now, a century later, it has gained wide acceptance and is recognized for its value to mind and body.

The word yoga means “yoke” or “union” in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. The aim of yoga is to unite mind, body and spirit.

Yoga is not just an exotic keep-fit technique, although many people do initially take it up for its physical benefits. It is a complete philosophy that aims to bring the individual into harmony with the universe. In this respect, yoga is less a therapy than a way of life.

No one really knows how old yoga is but archaeological evidence suggests it probably orginated in India some 5,000 years ago. Although yoga can lead to “religious” experience, it is not a religion in itself. Its methods have been incorporated into Hinduism but they have also found their way into Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, into some mystical forms of Islam and Christianity.

The literature of yoga is contained in a collection of texts, some of which are extremely ancient. The earliest written references to yoga appear in the Vedas, the oldest existing sacred Hindu literature dating from around 1550 bc.

Scientific Study
Yoga is one the most scientifically studied of the complementary therapies. Research shows that it can be beneficial for a vast range of medical problems, including back and neck pain.

The various posture exercises, the asanas, are the best-known aspect of yoga but they are just one of eight stages, or “limbs”, of physical and mental training designed to achieve union. The asanas, in conjunction with breathing-control exercises, known as pranayama, are believed to unify and balance the muscular and skeletal systems before acting on a deeper level to harmonize the functioning of all the body’s internal organs. Gradually they help to link mind, body and spirit and this eventually leads to the union of the individual consciousness with the universal truth – or God – a stage practitioners refer to as enlightenment.

Spiritual or Physical?
Yoga has helped many people in the West overcome all kinds of problems and to live fuller, more contented lives. For some it has also provided a gateway to religious or spiritual experiences. If the spiritual goals of yoga do not immediately appeal to you and you are simply looking for a way to ease your back pain, regular practice of the asanas and pranayama can still help you.

This is because the asanas work progressively to exercise and stretch every muscle in the body, including those not normally reached by traditional Western forms of keep-fit. If you perform yoga regularly, the muscles are thought to become more flexible and general suppleness increases. Underlying patterns of tension are worked out and the individual bones of the spine and the rest of the skeleton are gently realigned to their natural positions.

A Cleansing Process
On a deeper level, the twisting, stretching, bending and then holding of postures involved in the asanas are believed to massage the body’s internal organs, rinsing them in fresh, oxygen-carrying blood and draining them of old, oxygen¬ depleted blood. The efficiency of blood circulation and of the respiratory and digestive systems are all improved. Meanwhile, the pranayama, or breathing-control exercises, help to unify mind and body and to control and focus the life-force. The overall effect is improved health and energy levels, and a calmer, clearer mind.

Qigong for Back Pain Relief

Based on the principles of Taoism, the ancient religion and philosophy of China, qigong focuses on learning how to feel and move energy within the body with the help of gentle, sometimes almost static, exercises.

Qigong is generally held to be the precursor of t’ai chi and certainly predates it by many centuries. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that qigong was being discussed and practised in China as long ago as 600 bc. By the 16th century ad, qigong was closely associated with Taoist and Buddhist monasteries in China – the fusion of its principles with the martial arts at the time being practised by the monks is believed have resulted in the development of t’ai chi.

Qigong is still practised daily by millions of people in China. Despite its deceptively simple-looking exercises, qigong is complex and it can be difficult to find out how to begin with this therapy. Its thousands of years of history have encouraged the development of different schools, or approaches.

Qigong exercises direct the practitioner’s attention to the movement of qi, or the life force, within the body in order to build up what the Chinese refer to as great “inner strength” in a flexible, relaxed body. This contrasts with the “external strength”, in the form of well¬-toned muscles, developed by practitioners of martial arts such as karate.

Qigong and Your Back
Unlike its more active cousin, t’ai chi, qigong is unlikely to physically strengthen weak or damaged muscles and ligaments, but it can benefit back-pain sufferers in other less direct, but often just as effective, ways.

As back pain can be a result of chronic muscular tension, qigong is an excellent method of combating stress and promoting both mental and physical relaxation. Regular practice can help prevent a recurrence of the back problem. Back pain can also be a symptom of illness or chronic disorder elsewhere in the body. Qigong is reputed to have a beneficial effect on various chronic conditions, especially those that involve dysfunction of the immune system.

Practicing Qigong
There is one principal difference between the Eastern movement and balance therapies, such as qigong and t’ai chi, and the Western “keep-fit” approach to exercise. The Eastern therapies are concerned with generating and conserving energy, while the Western approach concentrates on using up energy and shedding it as burned calories, as well as on strengthening muscles.

As with t’ai chi, qigong aims to avoid placing stress on the muscles and joints. However, unlike the flowing sequence of movements in t’ai chi, qigong practice can involve standing still for considerable periods of time, concentrating on the movement of qi throughout the body. Other qigong movements involve gentle stretching or bending exercises that aim to promote the flow of qi to and through specific parts of the body.

The relative simplicity of some qigong postures means that it is possible to teach yourself the basics from a book. However, to benefit properly from both the physical and mental aspects of the discipline, it is important to find a good teacher.

Treating Back Pain with Homeopathy

Perhaps the most widely practiced of all complementary therapies is homeopathy. Yet it remains one of the most controversial since, despite years of scientific investigation, no one can explain how it works.

This principle of treating like with like has a long and distinguished tradition in medicine. The ancient Greek “Father” of medicine, Hippocrates, was familiar with the concept, and it has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine, the natural medicine practiced in India.

A German physician and chemist, Dr Samuel Hahnemann, developed the principle into a coherent therapy and published the first homeopathy textbook in 1810. Hahnemann’s interest in the subject was aroused by quinine, the anti¬malarial medicine extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree. He noticed that quinine given to a healthy person produced the same symptoms of fever and rigor (shaking) as malaria.

Hahnemann set about systematically testing the properties of over 4,000 substances. Experimenting mainly on himself, Hahnemann took high doses of each substance and recorded his reaction to it, a process known as proving. The basic ingredients of homeopathic remedies are still proved by being tested on healthy volunteers today.

Hahnemann then tested the substances in diluted form on patients. He selected patients who were suffering from a particular set of symptoms and gave them a substance which could cause similar symptoms in a healthy person. He observed that they got better. A person suffering from abdominal cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, for example, may have been given Nux vomica, a substance extracted from the poison nut tree which, in large doses, caused the same symptoms. At the same time he realized that finding out as much as possible about his patients before prescribing improved the success of his treatment.

Hahnemann noticed that patients often got worse before they got better and, in order to avoid this reaction, he began to experiment with steadily reducing the dose of the substances. This led to the development of the most controversial principle of homeopathy. Hahnemann found that steadily reducing the dose of active ingredients by increasing the dilution of substances and shaking the mixture at each stage increased the effectiveness of the remedy while reducing its side effects. This process, known as potentization, is used in the manufacture of homeopathic remedies today.

Manufacturing Remedies
Extracts from the natural ingredients, for example herbs, are dissolved in an alcohol solution and left to stand for anything up to a month. During this period the solution is shaken from time to time. Then the solution is strained off.

The strained solution is known as the mother tincture. This tincture is then systematically diluted to produce homeopathic remedies of various strengths. At each stage of dilution the solution is potentized by being shaken vigorously, a process known as succussion. The remedies are then made up into tiny pills – called pillules – granules or powders of the different strengths.

Homeopaths believe that succussion causes the active ingredient to release its “energy” into the liquid in the solution. This, they maintain, alters the basic structure of the liquid, leaving an imprint, rather like a footprint, of the original active substance on each of its molecules. Therefore, even at dilutions at which there is no longer any physical trace of the original active ingredient, the liquid still retains an “energy memory” of it and this is sufficient for the remedy to be effective. Indeed, it is the highest dilutions that are the strongest remedies and it is this “less is more” effect that causes the most controversy about homeopathy in orthodox scientific circles.

The strengths of homeopathic remedies are classified as follows. A tenfold dilution is indicated by the symbol x, a hundredfold dilution by the symbol c and a thousandfold dilution by the symbol m. While over-the-counter homeopathic remedies are sold at dilutions of 6x, most homeopaths prescribe much stronger remedies at a thousandfold dilution.

A Visit to a Homeopath
Homeopathy operates on the fundamental principle that each person is an individual and needs personalized treatment. When prescribing, homeopaths take into account a person’s personality, emotional and physical condition, likes and dislikes, as well as their symptoms. This is why a typical first homeopathic consultation often takes more than an hour and people with the same symptoms are often prescribed different remedies.

Homeopaths believe in the “laws of cure”. These state that remedies start to work from the top of the body to the bottom, from the inside out and from major to minor organs and that symptoms clear in reverse order of their appearance. The “from the inside out” effect is known as the law of direction and means, for example, that as symptoms of asthma improve, a skin condition such as eczema may develop. Conventional medicine now recognizes a strong link between asthma and eczema: if one member of your family is asthmatic another has an increased risk of eczema or hayfever.

Homeopathic remedies are prescribed one at a time and, during a course of treatment, may be changed according to the way your symptoms progress. It is perfectly safe to take the remedies along with conventional medicines, although some drugs can reduce the effects of homeopathy. Alcohol, coffee, tobacco, strong mints, strong perfumes and aromatherapy oils, such as tea tree oil, can interfere with the efficacy of homeopathic remedies. For the best results take a remedy on a “clean” tongue – do not eat, drink or brush your teeth for 15 minutes before or after taking it.

Many people use homeopathy as a self-help technique at home for simple ailments. But the holistic nature of homeopathy means that buying remedies to treat yourself is likely to be less successful than consulting a trained practitioner.

Today there are more than 3,000 homeopathic remedies and homeopathy can treat almost any health problem, although its effectiveness is said to depend on the individual. There are numerous remedies which may be prescribed for back pain. No two people are likely to be given the same remedy, even if they have similar sorts of back pain.

Preventing Back Pain with Exercises

Keeping fit is one of the best ways to prevent back problems from happening in the first place or, if you have already experienced back pain, of ensuring that it does not return.

Regular exercise helps to keep the muscles in your back strong and the joints flexible, thus preventing it from being damaged by the stresses of everyday life. An additional benefit is that if you do injure your back, recovery will take place more quickly if you are fit and healthy.

If you are a back-pain sufferer it is tempting to blame your condition on some physical problem that will be fixed as soon as you find the right treatment for it. In many cases this is true. Pain caused by joint problems and damaged discs can be relieved by the right therapy. But for many the truth may be that their backs hurt because their busy, sedentary lives have resulted in heir becoming overweight and out of shape: their muscles are too weak and they are too heavy.

When you bend, lift, twist and carry, your back and stomach muscles have to work at full stretch against your body weight and the pull of gravity. If your muscles are weak from disuse they are much more likely to be over-stressed when suddenly called upon to perform a little harder, when you have to carry heavy objects, lift things in and out of the car or do some gardening, for example. Being overweight may increase this stress.

A Simple Solution
One way of reducing back pain is to get more exercise. Even if your back pain is due to a structural problem and is alleviated by the right therapy, do not just give a sigh of relief and forget about it. Ask yourself why the problem occurred in the first place. Was it due to an accident or similar event outside your control or was it because you were out of shape when you tried to lift the end of the sofa? If it was the latter, getting fit will help prevent it from happening again. Most experts agree that once you have had one bout of back pain you are much more likely to suffer another in the future. They also agree that regular exercise is the best way of preventing recurrences.

Obviously, if you are still in pain it is not sensible to take up running or swimming now. Although everyday activities such as walking should be resumed as soon as possible, even if it hurts, you must give your back time to recover before taking up any sporting activity. Once the acute pain has disappeared, there are a variety of exercises that can be performed at home every day that are invaluable for strengthening the back muscles.

These exercises will normally be given to you by a good physiotherapist or osteopath. You may well want to carry on doing these after you have recovered.

If you suffer from recurrent simple back pain or have just recovered from your first episode, then it is common sense that certain sports are not suitable ways of getting fit. These are contact or high-impact sports such as rugby, football and basketball. It is fine to play these when you are fit but if you want to strengthen your back rather than damage it, it would be advisable to get into shape doing something else.

Massage for Back Pain Relief

The benefits of massage have long been recognized. Around 2,400 years ago in ancient Greece, the physician Hippocrates recommended “a scented bath and an oiled massage every day ” as the way to health.

Massage as a structured therapy is thought to have originated in China and Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago. It continued to be an important part of conventional medical practice for hundreds of years and it was not until the rise of “scientific” treatments in the 19th century that it slipped out of the textbooks.

Most methods of massage used today stem from the work of Per Henrik Ling, a Swede, who came across Oriental forms of massage while visiting China in the 19th century. Ling brought these techniques to Europe and developed what is now known as Swedish massage. This system employs four basic techniques: effleurage or stroking, percussion, petrissage or kneading, and frottage or friction. All these massage techniques are easy to learn and form the basis for most types of therapeutic massage.

A masseur will probably use a massage oil or aromatherapy oil to carry out the strokes smoothly, without pulling at your skin. Any pure vegetable oil or baby oil will be effective in lubricating the skin.

Touching and Your Skin
One of the most natural, instinctive forms of human communication is touching. The skin, with its millions of tiny nerve endings, is the largest organ of the body. Touch develops early in life – it is the unborn child’s principal way of investigating its surroundings. Research shows that babies and young children who are not touched and stroked are less likely to thrive.

Regular body massage can reduce anxiety, unlock tense and cramped muscles, ease stiff joints and generally results in increased vitality and a heightened sense of wellbeing. Massage as a therapy can be beneficial for a wide range of conditions and is excellent for back and neck pain. Other conditions that massage may help include muscle or joint pain or stiffness, anxiety and depression, stress-related disorders, headaches and migraine.

A massage can last for anything from a few minutes to half an hour or more. If you are giving a massage at home choose a quiet, warm room with subdued lighting. The person to be massaged, or receiver, should lie on a firm couch or on a mattress or blankets on the floor. You should wear comfortable, loose clothing that does not restrict your movements. Use large towels or bathrobes to cover areas of the receiver’s body that are not being massaged. You can use oil – either a carrier oil or diluted essential oils – or talcum powder to reduce friction during the massage. If your hands are cold rub them together to warm them up before beginning. Keep your strokes rhythmic and flowing and try to merge one stroke into the next. If you are giving a full body massage, begin with the back before moving on to other areas.

Treating Back Pain with Herbal Remedies

The earliest peoples would have learned the benefits – and dangers – of various plants through trial and error and from observing animals eating particular types of vegetation when unwell. This knowledge of herbal medicine was passed down through successive generations and is still used today.

The medicinal effects of plants were carefully documented and classified in medieval Europe. This illustration of a liquorice plant is from The Medieval Health Handbook of 1380.

Modern pharmaceutical-based medicine began in 18.-54, with the invention of the gelatin capsule. The new pharmacists took many traditional medicinal plants, extracted the therapeutic ingredient, processed it, encased it in a gelatin capsule and the modern drug was created. For example, the heart drug digitalis originally came from foxgloves.

The advent of modern drugs virtually killed off traditional herbal medicine. It is only in recent years, as people have become more concerned with the side effects of modern drugs, that there has been a resurgence of interest in herbalism.

Herbal medicine is a holistic therapy in which a person’s lifestyle, environment, personality and emotions are taken into account along with his or her symptoms. Through the ages, different traditions of herbal medicine have developed systems of diagnosis and treatment.

In general, herbal practitioners believe plants have specific properties. Some are cooling, others are warming, some are relaxing, others stimulating and so forth. Different plants are believed to have affinities with different organs and bodily systems and can be used to promote the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

In the West today, herbalists are more likely to choose plants for their medicinal effects as opposed to other more general properties. However, although schools of herbal medicine may differ in methods of diagnosis and treatment, they all still share one important, fundamental belief – that the strength of the sum of the parts is greater than the strength of any of the individual parts of a plant. For this reason, herbalists, unlike pharmacists, use the whole of a plant in their remedies.

Pharmaceuticals are manufactured by identifying the ingredient in a plant that acts against a particular condition or disease, extracting it and processing it into pills or tablets. This results in drugs that act far more powerfully against disease than the original plant could. Main drugs are so powerful that they are poisonous to the human body. This toxicity may lead to unpleasant side effects. For many drugs the line between being therapeutic and poisonous is very narrow and some, especially those used to treat cancers, may only be effective at doses that are also poisonous to the rest of the body.

Herbalists argue that the active ingredient is just one of hundreds of constituents of each plant and that these other constituents dampen the effect of the active one, allowing the plant to be therapeutic without being toxic. A prime example they point to is aspirin, which was originally processed from the bark of the willow tree. It is an effective painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug but its use is often limited because it irritates the lining of the stomach. Willow bark, however, rarely causes such problems – herbalists sometimes use it to treat stomach problems.

As a result, there is a popular view that pharmaceuticals are powerful and have nasty side effects whereas herbal remedies are gentle and have no side effects. This is a fine idea, but it is not altogether true. Herbal remedies share the same active ingredients as many drugs and in fact they can be dangerous it used incorrectly – you should always seek the advice of a qualified herbalist.

Herbal Medicine in Practice
Herbal remedies are prepared in various ways. One of the most common is infusion, known as tisane in France. Here the plant or plants are steeped in hot water for about 15 minutes, in much the same way as brewing a pot of tea. The liquid is strained off and drunk hot or cold. Alternatively, tinctures are made by chopping up the plant and soaking it in a solution of three-quarters water and one-quarter alcohol and leaving it to stand for up to two weeks. The liquid is drained off and taken as medicine by mouth. Herbal remedies can also be used in compresses, poultices, gargles, inhalations, and in creams and ointments.

Various herbal remedies are believed to help ease problems such as muscular tension and joint inflammation which can cause back pain.

Choosing a Complementary Therapy for Back Pain

Conventional medicine is beginning to accept alternative approaches, and your doctor may be able to refer you to a complementary therapist.

Once you have decided to try complementary medicine, you may feel bewildered by the variety of therapies available. There are more than 26 different therapies, all of which have helped back-pain sufferers. So how do you decide which therapy may be right for you?

At this stage it is useful to divide complementary therapies into three general groups: therapies that principally treat your body; those that treat your mind and emotions; and the so-called energy therapies. In practice, however, it is not this straightforward. Unlike conventional medicine, complementary therapies do not make a distinction between mind and body. Therefore the physical therapies have a psychological component, the psychological therapies have physical effects, and energy therapies straddle both groups.

Examples of physical therapies are: osteopathy, chiropractic, Alexander technique, aromatherapy, massage and yoga. Psychological therapies include meditation, psychotherapy and counseling. Energy therapies include acupuncture and homeopathy.

Many people feel happiest beginning with a physical complementary therapy as it seems closer to their normal experience. Nearly everyone has heard of physiotherapy and most people have experienced some form of massage. Of all the physical complementary therapies, research shows that osteopathy and chiropractic are the most popular.

Starting with either of these two therapies has another advantage. Today, osteopathy and chiropractic are largely accepted by the medical profession as effective treatments for back pain and your doctor is likely to support your decision and may even be able to refer you to a suitable therapist.

After a few sessions you will know whether this is the right therapy for you. The osteopath or chiropractor may then suggest other therapies, such as yoga or classes in Alexander technique, if he or she thinks you would benefit from them.

Once your initial pain has eased, you can decide whether the problem is being solved or whether you wish to pursue other therapies. For example, although the osteopath or chiropractor may have identified poor posture as the probable cause of your back pain, you may begin to suspect that your stressed muscles are caused by underlying mental tension or anxieties. As a result, you may decide to try a therapy with a stronger psychological component.

Treating Back Pain with Chiropractic

The vast majority of the of people who consult a chiropractor each year do so because of chronic back or neck pain. Surveys of people using chiropractic show high levels of satisfaction, and a growing number of scientific studies have provided proof of the therapy’s effectiveness in such cases.

Like osteopathy, chiropractic came out of the American Midwest in the 19th century and was largely the result of dissatisfaction with the conventional medical care of the day. Both therapies involve manipulation of the skeletal system, especially the spine.

However, of the two therapies, chiropractic has been viewed as the most controversial by the medical establishment for most of its history. A major reason for this is that, in the US at least, osteopaths, unlike chiropractors, are also medically trained doctors.

The term “chiropractic” derives from the ancient Greek for “manually effective”. The therapy was founded in 1895 by a self-educated Canadian healer named Daniel David Palmer. Palmer, who moved to and practised in Iowa, established chiropractic on two basic principles: that spinal misalignment, which puts pressure on nearby nerves, is the cause of virtually all disease; and that spinal manipulation is the cure.

Palmer believed that by manipulating the spine to correct the problem it was possible to cure not only conditions such as sciatica but also a range of internal complaints such digestive disorders and even asthma. The subject of Palmer’s first chiropractic manipulation was Harvey Lillard, the janitor of the building in which Palmer had his office. Lillard, who was deaf, was suffering a bout of severe back pain. Palmer manipulated his spine and Lillard’s pain was cured – and so was his deafness. At first Palmer thought he had accidentally discovered a cure for deafness but although chiropractic proved effective for all sorts of back and neck pain, Palmer never managed to cure another case of deafness.

Word about the new therapy spread rapidly, and by the turn of the century chiropractic had gained a considerable following. It was, however, viewed as controversial from the start, and hundreds of early practitioners were arrested for practising medicine without a licence. Palmer himself was jailed for a time in 1906 and the American medical establishment vociferously opposed the new therapy.

Although chiropractic had many proponents, suspicion and hostility continued throughout the 20th century. Matters finally came to a head as recently as 1990 when the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the American Medical Association was guilty of anti-trust law violations by engaging in a conspiracy to “contain and eliminate” chiropractic.

Today, chiropractic is the third largest independent health profession in the Western world after conventional medicine and dentistry. However, unlike osteopathy, physically chiropractic has stayed close to its roots and 52,000 of the world’s 56,000 chiropractors practise in North America.

Most modern chiropractors would now find Palmer’s original philosophy of “one cause – one cure” too simplistic, but spinal manipulation does remain the cornerstone of the therapy. In fact, the emphasis placed on spinal manipulation by many chiropractors is probably the reason for the widespread belief that the therapy is only really useful for treating back pain. In practice, however, chiropractors treat almost any mechanical problem anywhere in the body.

Chiropractic is a holistic discipline and shares many of the fundamental principles of natural healing that underpin all complementary therapies. In particular, the natural principles of chiropractic are that:

• All human beings share a natural healing potential or inner wisdom of the body
• The is the aim of the healing arts is to assist this potential
• The use of medical drugs to suppress symptoms can damage the body’s ability to heal itself.

Chiropractors believe that overall health depends on the normal functioning of the nervous system – that pain and disease in any area of the body are the result of a malfunction of the nerves supplying that particular area. According to this theory, structural problems in and around the spine are the most common reason for such a malfunction.

In simple terms, if a nerve becomes compressed, by a misaligned facet joint for example, the flow of nerve impulses is disrupted, in much the same way as stepping on a hosepipe blocks the flow of water. This in turn leads to dysfunction in the organ or body system that the nerve supplies.

As well as causing nerve disruption, such structural problems can also have local mechanical effects as the resulting imbalance in the spine places nearby structures under strain, leading to muscle spasm and pain. They may also have more distant effects. A structural problem in the lower back, for example, may place excess strain on one or both knees, and in such cases, knee problems rather than back pain are often the complaint that causes the sufferer to make an appointment to see the chiropractor.