Is Your Back Pain Relentless? Try 5 Wellness Fixes

Going beyond medications, physical therapy and injections

Do you wake with a horrific backache each morning? Or wince with pain when you stand up after a long day at the computer?

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Back pain is more likely with age, a sedentary lifestyle, poor nutrition, obesity and stress. “Adjusting your lifestyle is one of the best ways to manage chronic back pain,” says wellness pain management specialist Hong Shen, MD.

Standard chronic low back pain treatments include medications, physical therapy and steroid injections. “Injections may not be as effective or long-lasting for chronic pain and do carry some risk,” notes Dr. Shen.

Long-term use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can damage the kidneys and liver and cause GI bleeding or leaky gut. Acetaminophen can damage the liver and slow liver detoxification. Opioids may lead to anxiety, endocrine problems, dependency and addiction. Muscle relaxers are often sedating.

Dr. Shen instead recommends taking five steps toward wellness:

1. Use food as medicine

“Inflammation is the root cause of many types of chronic pain,” explains Dr. Shen. “Eating lots of sugars, refined carbs like flour and processed foods increases inflammation and pain.”

Step away from the standard American diet that’s high in calories and low in micronutrients. Embrace a diet rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients instead:

Advertising Policy
  • Choose a variety of color in veggies and fruits. Different colors indicate a variety of nutrients. “You can eat unlimited leafy greens and cruciferous veggies without gaining weight,” she says.
  • Eat beans in moderation. While beneficial, beans can add pounds and increase glucose levels when you eat too many. “Anyone who wants to lose weight will need to limit portions,” says Dr. Shen.
  • Get moderate amounts of protein. Choice high-quality lean meats. “Even better, consider eating more plant-based proteins,” she suggests.
  • Eliminate processed foods. Prepackaged and fried foods are often high in pro-inflammatory sugars, refined carbs, food additives and bad fats.
  • Avoid food sensitivities. Food sensitivities often contribute to chronic pain. The most common culprits are wheat and casein, from cow’s milk.
  • Eat healthy fats. Wild salmon and other small wild fish, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds and avocado all contain healthy fat. Dr. Shen also recommends fish oil supplements.

2. Manage the stress in your life

Pain triggers the release of stress hormones that make muscles tighten up. “Muscle tension reduces blood flow to tissues, bringing them less oxygen and fewer nutrients. When this happens, you feel pain,” explains Dr. Shen.

You can’t avoid stress, but you can learn to manage it. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and meditation are excellent tools, she says. Skilled therapists can change the way you perceive stress. Meditation can reduce anxiety, provide a calm sense of focus and reduce pain.

3. Don’t shortchange your sleep

“Sleep is very, very important — it helps your body heal,” says Dr. Shen. “Lack of sleep releases more stress hormones, lowers pain tolerance and worsens existing pain.”

Sleep loss can complicate other health issues, making it harder to control glucose levels when you have diabetes, for example.

So practice good sleep hygiene. Avoid blue light from smart phones or TV for one hour before bedtime. “Go to bed at the same time every evening and get up at same time every morning to keep your internal clock regular,” says Dr. Shen.

Meditation is a great tool for a better night’s sleep. Many meditation apps are available.She suggests starting with five to 10 minutes of meditation before bedtime. If you wish, you can gradually increase to 20 or 30 minutes a night.

Advertising Policy

Supplements such as melatonin can also help you sleep at night.

4. Make physical activity a habit

“Motion is lotion for your back,” says Dr. Shen. Exercise— even when you’re in pain — is critical to recovery. Start out with an activity you like, and see yourself gradually progress from a less active to a more active lifestyle.

If you can’t move very easily, try chair yoga, walking, biking or swimming. “Even a small increase in daily activity can bring major improvements in overall health,” she says.

5. Try acupuncture for relief

Acupuncture can help you resume the activity that back pain has limited. Used for thousands of years in China for everything from pain relief to stroke rehabilitation, acupuncture is now used in the United States and other Western counties for a variety of chronic pain.

The outpatient procedure is suitable for most people. “Tell your acupuncturist if you are on blood thinners, or have a spinal cord stimulator or pacemaker,” says Dr. Shen. “The acupuncturist will adjust your treatment plan.”

Dr. Shen has seen that back pain patients who adopt these wellness practices feel and function better — even if they have failed injections, medications and surgeries.