13 January 2011

A natural approach to back problems

Dr Arien van der Merwe, a medical doctor with extensive experience in natural medicine, offers some advice on solving back problems the non-conventional way.


A natural approach to back problems

In this series of articles, we take a look at what you can do or take to prevent, alleviate or cure common ailments naturally. As many complementary and alternative medicine therapies haven't undergone rigorous testing, we base the recommendations here on the amount of evidence that is currently available (indicated with asterisks):

Natural steps for back problems (check the evidence rating)
*** Good evidence of a health benefit
** Some evidence of a health benefit
* Traditionally used with only anecdotal evidence

The following steps are important in managing back problems:

  • Increase fish consumption *
  • Increase vegetables consumption *
  • Avoid any allergenic foods *

These nutrients have been shown to help alleviate back problems:

  • Glucosamine **
  • Chondroitin **
  • B-complex vitamins **

The following herbs are often used in the treatment of back problems:

  • Cat's claw **
  • Ginger **
  • White willow bark **
  • Turmeric **
  • Bromelain **
  • Nettle **

Homeopathics remedies that may help treat back problems include:

  • Arnica *
  • Symphytum *
  • Hypericum *
  • Rhus tox *
  • Bryonia *
  • Kali carb *
  • Nat mur *
  • Berberis *
  • Dulcamara *

Alternative/Complementary therapy
The most commonly used complementary approaches to back problems are:

  • Acupuncture *
  • Massage **
  • Chiropractic **
  • Exercise **

Please note: This natural medicine guide doesn't replace the assessment and advice of your doctor.

Dr Arien van der Merwe, a medical doctor with extensive experience in natural medicine, offers some advice on solving back problems the non-conventional way. Relaxation and visualisation techniques, and correct supplementation can go a long way to help.

Conventional medicine offers few solutions for back problems: painkillers, anti-inflammatory medication, in some cases corticosteroids, physiotherapy, a few exercises and then the only answer is major surgery such as spinal fusion, with a success rate of 50-60%.

It is essential for conventional doctors and complementary health care providers to work together to the benefit of all parties, especially with the ailing and unhealthy state humankind is in today. Back problems are good examples of the many health problems where different therapeutic disciplines can support one another and work together to ensure optimal health and well being.

Natural remedies

What to do

1. Change your diet
A diet consisting of lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, with nuts, seeds, wholegrain products and fish, to alleviate the chronic constipation often associated with the nerve compression and inactivity of lower back pain, is recommended.

2. Rebalance your chakras
A chakra (or "wheel" or "disk") is a centre of vital energy in our bodies that takes the form of a lotus flower. The head of the "flower" is found at the front of the body and the stem is thought to go through the central spinal column. There are seven charkas situated throughout the body. Starting at the root chakra at the base of the spine and ending at the crown chakra – just above the head.

The awareness and recognition that stress plays a major role in any back problem. Financial, safety, security and relationship issues will manifest in the first and second chakras, (also known as electromagnetic fields), correlating with the adrenal and sexual glands in the body. These chakras have to do with our sense of security and our relationships in the physical world and are situated in the coccyx and lower back area.

Indian head massage is a great way to rebalance your chakras.

3. Alternative exercise
Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and meditation, as well as specific gentle yoga and Pilates exercises are very helpful in managing chronic back pain. Inactivity is the cause of most of the disability associated with lower back problems. Get moving as quickly as possible!

The correct exercises for the tummy muscles, upper thighs and buttocks gradually strengthen and balance the back muscles to improve support of the vertebrae. Walking regularly is also excellent.

4. Visualisation
Visualisation techniques in which you can imagine yourself dancing or jumping, and at other times in a peaceful country scene, reinforce the message of healing and balance. Once the period of denial and suppression of negative emotions has passed, the healing process can begin.

5. Massage and chiropractic
Deep therapeutic back massage, reflexology and chiropractic, acupuncture and ultrasound therapy by a qualified physiotherapist, a therapeutic masseuse and a careful, gentle chiropractor will improve the muscle spasm and the misaligned vertebrae.

Chiropractic eases the vertebrae back into position through corrective manipulation. Essential oils such as lavender, eucalyptus, thyme, pine and chamomile can be used in a grape or almond seed carrier oil when massaging. Add them to your bathwater to promote relaxation of the muscles and generally help you to unwind.

What to take

1. Ayurvedic medicine
The following Ayurvedic recipe works well for severe constipation: 1 tablespoon of castor oil before bedtime in a quarter of a glass of hot water containing a pinch of ginger and a few drops of lemon juice (it also takes away the oily taste). Drink this for one or two evenings and then again after a week. You should not do this more than once a month.

2. Supplements
The correct supplements to restore the functioning of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems include the following:

  1. Calcium, magnesium, vitamins D and C, B-complex, potassium, zinc, copper, boron, silica and manganese.
  2. Essential fatty acids (gamma linolenic, eicosapentanoic and docosahexanoic acids in the form of evening primrose oil capsules (2 000mg a day) and salmon oil capsules (1 200mg a day).
  3. Antioxidants with vitamins A, E and C as well as selenium. Glucosamine and chondroitin will also help in the recovery process.

3. Herbal help
Consult your doctor or a professional herbal practitioner before using any of the herbs mentioned in the following section, especially if you are pregnant, suffer from a chronic disease or are on other medication. Also read the section on herb safety.

The herbs cat's claw (Uncaria tomentosa), Pycnogenol, ginger, turmeric, white willow bark and pineapple extract with bromelain. Ginger, turmeric, bromelain and white willow bark are also natural anti-inflammatories and pain killers.

4. Homeopathic remedies
The following homeopathic remedies were recommended by qualified homeopath, Dr Debbie Smith. Match your specific condition to the remedy suggested:

Arnica – for backache due to injuries, bruised pains, and people who are afraid to be touched.

Symphytum – for backache due to fracture it is used to promote the union of fracture. Also for backache due to excessive sexual indulgence.

Hypericum – for lower backache in people who carry heavy objects and have to move up and down the stairs, also for backache caused by nerve injuries.

Rhus tox – for backache (more indicated in chronic conditions). The backache is worse on first motion, rising from a sitting position and overexertion. The backache is better when doing continued motion and when pressure is applied. Also for people who are restless and feel the need to move around.

Bryonia – for backache that occurs during all forms of motion, and is better during resting.

Kali carb – for backache with a feeling of weakness, especially in the legs. Also for backache that is worse during pregnancy and after a miscarriage.

Nat mur – for backache that is relieved by hard pressure. If you get relief by putting something heavy or hard on your back, Nat mur might work for you. A symptom that accompanies this type of backache is a craving for salt.

Berberis – for backache from renal causes.

Dulcamara – for backache that gets worse in wet, cold weather after warm, dry weather, at nights and when at rest and gets better from sitting, movements, warmth in general and dry weather.

Chronic lower back problems mean you'll probably always have to be careful. Lifestyle adaptations are obviously essential, but it isn't easy to change habits and make them a permanent part of your life. Be patient and keep at it.

This article was written by natural health expert Dr Arien van der Merwe (MBChB). You can order her following books, published by Tafelberg, in English and Afrikaans online at
Health & Happiness
Geluk & Gesondheid
Herbal Remedies
Kruie met Geneeskrag


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