Mythbusters: Do These Novel Back Pain Treatments Work?

People will try just about anything to find back pain relief, and thanks to the never-ending parade of emerging treatments, patients aren’t short of new ones to try.

In the world of alternative therapies, it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate the weird-sounding-but-effective from the not-so-great. Some of these recently popularized treatments may even cause harm, and understanding the risks is important before experimenting.

Complicating matters, many alternative treatments are not well-researched, which means their efficacy is unknown beyond anecdotal evidence. If you do try any of these treatments, keep in mind that your body is your best guide. If something hurts, steer clear of it. A method that works for one person may not work for another.

Back pain is especially complex because even though patients have in common the area of pain, the causes may differ wildly. That means the treatment that will work for you will depend on the cause of your back pain, your individual body structure, and any pre-existing injuries or areas of pain.

Trying new treatments to find what works for you is generally a good idea, but proceed cautiously and always talk to your doctor before trying any of these.

1. Inversion tables

Inversion tables are specialized pieces of equipment that support back pain patients as they hang upside down. The tables are adjustable, and so people aren’t typically straight up and down, but rather on an adjustable incline.

The idea is that hanging upside down removes gravitational pressure from the spine and gives the vertebrae breathing room, which theoretically reduces pain.

Studies haven’t shown the tables provide long-term relief from back pain, according to Mayo Clinic. Additionally, hanging upside down is not safe for people with high blood pressure, glaucoma, or heart disease. Patients with these conditions should avoid inversion tables entirely.

However, some patients experiencing back pain from spinal disc compression may find inverting helps to alleviate pressure and reduce pain, Mayo Clinic adds. Anecdotal evidence is divided. Some patients on a WebMD forum reported the tables provided great relief, while others said they’re best used in conjunction with other treatments, like core-strength building and targeted stretching.

Inversion tables are a wonderful technique for reducing stress, though, which could in itself help reduce back pain, according to Weber State University.

The verdict: Inversion tables are probably safe to try if you don’t have a contraindicated health issue, and they may be effective, depending on the source of your back pain. If you’re looking for simple stress relief and don’t want to dish out for a table, try the simple legs-up-the-wall yoga pose.

2. Laughter therapy

The old adage says laughter is the best medicine, and emerging research shows that may be true. Although the physical act of laughter may sometimes cause spasms of back pain, overall it releases feel-good brain chemicals that could reduce suffering.

When it comes to alleviating back pain, Swiss researchers have found that laughing increased study subjects’ pain tolerance. The effect was so dramatic that researchers recommended laughter therapy be included with other interventions as a primary form of treatment.

In the study, subjects watched funny movies, and the resulting laughter reduced muscular tension and spurred production of endorphins, the same natural happy brain chemicals linked to exercise. Researchers emphasized that laughter needs to “come from the heart.” In this case, faking it until you make it doesn’t apply.

Laughter is also tied to stress relief, reports Mayo Clinic and causes the body to release natural painkillers—another benefit for those looking to fight chronic back pain.

The verdict: Incorporating more laughter into your life is always a good thing and could very well help reduce back pain.

3. Cupping

This alternative therapy is growing in popularity, and limited studies show it likely offers benefit for back pain. Although cupping has only recently hit the mainstream U.S., the practice dates back to ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Middle Eastern systems of medicine.

Cupping involves the use of cups applied to the back. The lids of the cups are heated, and when they’re applied to the skin, the heat creates a suctioning effect. Advocates say cupping improves blood flow and reduces tension.

A review of studies published in the journal Acupuncture in Medicine found that cupping shows promise for treating back pain and has a low risk profile. Some of the studies reviewed found that cupping was superior to traditional Western medication when it came to reducing pain.

As a note of caution, cupping tends to temporarily leave round scars on the back in the shape of cups, so keep that in mind if you plan to bare your back in the near future.

The verdict: Cupping may provide some benefit for back pain patients.

4. Magnets

The idea of treating pain with magnets has been around for centuries, and recent studies have found magnets are beneficial for alleviating migraines, but the same has not held true when it comes to treating back pain.

Research published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found patients who used magnets for six hours per day, three days each week experienced no reduction in pain, reports WebMD.

Researchers said they weren’t prepared to definitively state that magnets were ineffective for back pain, but studies so far have not revealed a benefit. WebMD contacted a representative for a medical magnet company who said the study was flawed. The wrong type of magnet was used and the duration of treatment was not long enough, the representative said.

In the study, researchers used a bipolar magnet, in which both the north and south poles face the skin. Other commercially available magnets have just one pole facing the skin. Meanwhile, some patients anecdotally say magnets have helped reduce their back pain. Yale University Dr. David Trock tells WebMD:

“We really need to keep an open mind about the use of magnets. I’ve heard a number of anecdotal stories on both sides.”

Verdict: Magnets might be effective for back pain, but no studies currently show that’s true.

Have you tried any of these therapies for back pain?

Image by Garry Knight via Flickr