Back pain: Exploring alternative treatments

Salonaz Sami, Monday 22 Aug 2022

Experts explain to Ahram Online the various alternative treatments for relieving back pain, a chronic issue for millions in Egypt and around the world.

Back pain


Back pain can set in suddenly, from an accident, a fall, lifting of a heavy object, or it can develop more slowly over the years because of a medical condition or age related changes in the spine.

"It could range from a simple muscle aching to a shooting or burning sensation that could sometimes radiate down to the legs," explained Ahmed Nasiem, a physical therapist.

Treatment of back pain varies depending on the cause and symptoms. 

Most back pain usually improves with home treatment and good old rest within a few weeks.

But, while anyone can suffer back pain, several factors increase the risk such as age, heredity, weight gain and lack of exercise.

"Your spine maybe distorted or damaged from improper sitting, standing or slouching," said Nasiem.

"There are also jobs that require heavy lifting, pushing or pulling, which can injure the back. A desk job can also play a role, especially if you have poor posture or sit all day in an uncomfortable chair," he added.

However, patients who do not feel that they are getting the relief for back pain expected from conventional physical therapy treatment and/or prescribed medication from physicians should definitely consider the following as a second option.

One, there is cupping therapy, in which local suction points are created on the skin using heated cups.

"The therapist allocates specific points for cupping and disinfects the pain area," explained Mohamed Magdy, an alternative medicine practitioner.

"The therapist then soaks a cotton ball in alcohol and light it on fire inside a glass cup. They remove the flame and quickly place the cup on the patient's skin, creating a vacuum that draws up the skin tissue," Magdy added.

The air begins to cool after the skin seals the hot air in the cup, causing the skin to contract.

"Because the hot air draws blood from the vessels into the body tissue, the body responds like it would to an injury - it starts an inflammatory response, mobilising antibodies to the afflicted area in an attempt to start the healing process, while increasing the blood flow in the process," he noted.

In wet cupping, however, superficial incisions are made under the skin using a surgical scalpel or a needle to allow the body get rid of toxin and waste. The ensuing mild loss of blood is thought to increase the quality of the remaining blood by the immediate elimination of toxins trapped in the tissues, and hence, making the patient feel better.

The US Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps, made his debut in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with his back and shoulders covered in perfectly round purple bruises, a few inches in diameter, after a cupping treatment.

phelps bruises stirred talks about cupping and its many benefits.

"I've done it before meets, pretty much every meet I go to," Phelps said in Rio at the time, according to the New York Times.

"So, I asked for a little cupping yesterday because I was sore, and the trainer hit me pretty hard and left a couple of bruises," he added.

Other celebrities who advocate for cupping include US gymnasts Alex Naddour, Justin Bieber, Jennifer Aniston, and David Arquette.

But can a couple of cups on your skin really make a difference?

"Cupping therapy has been around for ages and was used in ancient Chinese and Egyptian medicine to treat athletic aches and other pains," said Magdy.

"It was also used for athletes who aren't hurt to increase the blood flow, thus, help repair muscle fibbers after a hard workout," he added.

Evidently, cupping can effectively treat back pain, neck pain, headache and migraines, reducing blood pressure in hypertensive patients, cellulites and facial paralysis among many other conditions.

Thus, in short, "cupping carries the potential to enhance the quality of one's life on so many levels," Magdy said.

The risks associated with cupping are minor, and include noticeable bruising that occurs due to the damaged blood cells.

"But it's nothing to worry about. The bruising you see is caused by the blood oozing from the vessel into the tissue," Magdy explained.

"It is normal and it isn't painful. It just means the treatment worked well," he noted.

However, if you have a bleeding disorder or take medicine that results in bleeding as a potential side effect, you might want to skip cupping because it can do further damage to your blood vessels.

Two, a chiropractic adjustment is another option to treat back pain.

It is a procedure in which trained specialists use their hands or a small instrument to apply a controlled, sudden force to a spinal joint.

The goal here is to improve spinal motion, as well as the body's physical functions in general.

Sessions' durations tend to be short for the most part, typically ranging from 20-60 minutes.

"The first appointment usually involves a full needs assessment and, depending on the condition, the treatment program is usually 2 times per week for 2 to 4 weeks," explained Emad Habib, a chiropractic and sports injuries doctor.

"During this time, patients feel noticeably better," Habib added.

Reactions after the first session vary greatly from one person to another. These may range from a great sense of exhilaration to a feeling of aching and soreness in the spinal joints or muscles.

During a chiropractic adjustment, you might hear a cracking sound coming out of your bones, but do not worry. 

"The cracking sound is caused by small pockets of air formed in the lubricating fluid which surrounds the joints," explained Habib.

"When the tissues are stretched during a session, the air pockets pop, making the cracking sound you hear," he added.

"However, a chiropractic adjustment done in the wrong way may cause unwanted fractures or injuries. So, it is of the utmost importance to only have an appointment with an experienced chiropractor," Habib noted.

Chiropractic care will not necessarily be your miracle cure-all. But it may provide significant relief for pulled muscles or strains and movement injuries in general.

Meanwhile, there are many forms of exercise that you can practice to keep your spine healthy, strong and aligned, thus, preventing back pain, such as swimming, walking, and yoga.

"Walking could be a great form of exercise for those suffering from back issues," explained Nasiem.

 "But if you walk, don't do it for long, as long strides may be more painful for your back," he added.

"Put your phone away and keep your chin parallel to the ground to have the best walking posture," Nasiem advised.

 Being active is the most important way you could help yourself if you have back pain.

"Keeping the muscles around the spine strong, will provide more support to the bones and joints and take pressure off them," Nasiem noted.

The more you move, the more your back will keep its natural range of movement. In fact, too much rest could make the pain worse," Nasiem said.

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