Nearly eight out of every ten people will experience back pain at some point in their lifetimes. One of the causes of back pain, especially as we age, is from spinal stenosis. As our bodies change to adapt to new work styles and setups, our backs (and shoulders and necks) are feeling the brunt of this. With stenosis, our spines are literally contracting. Unfortunately, as we’ve written about on the PainDoctor.com blog, studies are showing time and time again that opioids and other medications just aren’t very effective at treating back pain, especially for chronic, long-term cases like stenosis. So, how to treat spinal stenosis and other causes of back pain? Look towards holistic treatments for back pain that can help treat the back, and the whole body.
How to treat spinal stenosis, step 1: Reduce stress
As if you needed another reason to avoid stress, consider this: it worsens back pain. Stress rallies the body’s fight-or-flight response that results in muscle tension in the lower back which can exacerbate back and spinal stenosis pain. Relaxation techniques reverse this process, ridding your tight muscles of tension and stress and soothing your back. These methods are available to you no matter where you go. Best of all, relaxation is completely natural, leaving you without harmful side effects.
Holistic treatments for spinal stenosis and back pain, by their very definition, are focused on treating the back as part of the larger body. We all know how stress, depression, and grief can manifest as physical symptoms. We all know how physical symptoms can manifest as mental ones. It’s time to start looking at the whole person–mind, body, and soul–for how to treat spinal stenosis and back pain. Here are our favorite techniques with proven potential to ease your back pain.
1. Slowed breathing
This is the easiest method and the first step to reducing back pain. You can even do it right now!
Control your breathing to reduce stress and alleviate back pain. Try inhaling for a count of four, holding for four, and exhaling for a count of four. Repeat this exercise ten times, with your hand on your belly to make sure you’re breathing deeply as opposed to limiting the breath to your chest. Deep breathing helps you to relax more thoroughly and promotes oxygen circulation.
Meditation can take slowed breathing a step further and can be a wonderful tool in your arsenal to reduce low back pain. Can you believe that sitting still and focusing on your breath can actually improve your quality of life? It’s true; studies have shown a clear connection.
In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found a group of volunteers sharply reduced their perceptions of pain after engaging in 20-minute meditation sessions for four days. The volunteers were then subjected to mild burns, and meditating reduced the pain intensity ratings by 40%. Researchers theorize meditation helps people control how their brains perceive pain. Pain is felt, but it is also learned. Meditation is one of the best options for how to treat spinal stenosis pain because it helps your brain unlearn pain.
Ironically, though, sitting still in a meditation posture—generally legs crossed and on the floor—can exacerbate back pain. And, pain during meditation is more than uncomfortable; it distracts you from the practice. Many workarounds are available for this issue. If you feel back pain, don’t be afraid to try new positions to find one that works for you.
Sit on a pillow or cushion
If you have tight inner thighs or hips, sitting cross-legged may result in an uncomfortable position for your spine. Tight hips can pull on your pelvis, which then tugs on your spine. Ideally, your pelvis should be in a neutral position. This allows your spine to rise straight and upright. Try sitting on a pillow or cushion to create optimal alignment.
Sit in a chair
Even though thinking about meditation may have you imagining men in orange robes sitting in a temple floor, there’s nothing wrong with sitting in a chair while practicing. Just make sure the chair supports your lumbar spine, allowing you to sit in an upright position and stay aware of the breath.
If your back is causing tremendous pain, and sitting is not an option for you, try lying down. Yes, you may be more likely to fall asleep in this position, but the key is to make meditation work for you and your body. If you complement meditation with muscle-strengthening exercises or yoga, you may one day gain the strength and flexibility to sit upright. Until then, lie down and relax knowing you’re doing good things for your health.
3. Reframing back pain as a whole-body issue
This may not seem like an actual treatment, but key to understanding back pain is its myriad causes in the body. Back pain isn’t a direct by-product of trauma or disease in the back. It’s also very much a mental condition. As we noted in our post, “Chronic Pain And Depression — How Are They Connected?”“:
“One study found that the incidence of major depression among patients with low back pain was three to four times the rate in the general, healthy population. Another study found that as the severity of the pain rose, the prevalence of major depression rose at the same rate. The side effects of chronic pain seem to contribute to the severity of depression. Lack of sleep due to pain or as a side effect of medication can increase pain sensitivity during the day, which can also increase pain at night. Sleepless chronic pain patients may find themselves snapping at their families during the day, adding stress to the home environment.”
What this means for the patient is actually quite empowering. By treating both depression and back pain together, many patients have found heightened levels of back pain relief, as well as help with their depression symptoms.
Another comorbid condition that patients should investigate if they suffer from back pain is weight. Obesity, just like back pain, is an inflammatory condition. By treating both together, you have a greater chance of relieving the effects of both.
Through biofeedback, you learn how to control your most innate physical processes, including heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure. To start, you’ll need a visit to a biofeedback specialist, who will attach electrodes to your skin. These tiny sensors will measure the processes you seek to control and display the numbers on a monitor.
As the biofeedback therapist shows you how to slow down your heart rate, reduce muscle tension, and lower your blood pressure, the numbers on the monitor quantify how your body reacts to your efforts. Once you become accustomed to your body’s reactions and learn how to sense them, you won’t need the monitor to gauge progress.
Biofeedback methods used to control these body functions include guided imagery, meditation, and purposeful muscle relaxation. Although researchers aren’t sure exactly how biofeedback works to reduce back pain, many people find the method effective.
4. Active release technique
Active release technique (ART) is a patented method used to reduce pain that involves massage to ease overused muscles. This special technique breaks down the scar tissue that results from muscle overuse. Accumulated scar tissue causes pain by restricting movement in normal tissue, which shortens and weakens muscles and sometimes traps nerves. An ART therapist will examine you to discern the precise area causing the pain, and then massage that area to break up scar tissue.
A secret of ART involves the knowledge that sometimes scar tissue in seemingly unrelated areas causes pain. For example, a tight psoas muscle, which starts in the lower back and runs down the hip flexor into the thigh, frequently results in back pain. Freeing the psoas with ART often helps alleviate back pain.
Large-scale studies show over and over again that exercise truly is the best treatment for back pain. On Pain Doctor, we’ve covered this in detail in many of our posts, including in our post “15 Spinal Stenosis Exercises You Can Do Anywhere.” Look towards this post or any of our post that covers