Whatever is causing your back pain, you just want it to stop. In fact, if you’ve suffered from back pain long enough, you might wonder if you’ll ever find relief, even for just for a moment, so they you can return to some semblance of normality.
As Rebecca Horn mentioned in her recovery story, “Chronic pain doesn’t discriminate. Whether you’re swimming, dancing, working, walking, or simply vacuuming…it hurts to move. You don’t get to choose what activities are spared. You lose it all.”
But here’s something you may not know: many less-than-stellar manufacturers will use your desperation against you. How? By convincing you to spend your hard-earned money on products that have very little (if any) potential to help you find relief.
With this said, according to the National Institutes of Health, “Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on low back pain, the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work.”
In fact, when it comes to neurological ailments, only headaches occur more often than back pain. But unlike headaches, chronic back pain can “interfere with every aspect of daily living. You can't concentrate – you can't remember things as well. It affects your appetite, it affects your sleep," and it can cause you to become “depressed, anxious, and irritable.”
But if you’re searching for a solution to your back pain, how can you tell the difference between products that actually work, and those that are just preying on your need for relief? Great question, because that’s exactly what we’ll discuss in this article. But first, let’s take a look at what back pain is, as well as some of its most common causes.
What Is Chronic Back Pain & How Does It Develop?
According to the National Institutes of Health, “Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on low back pain, the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work.” In fact, when it comes to neurological ailments, only headaches occur more often than back pain. But unlike headaches, chronic back pain can “interfere with every aspect of daily living. You can't concentrate -- you can't remember things as well. It affects your appetite, it affects your sleep," and it can cause you to become “depressed, anxious, and irritable.”
Did you know that "Eighty percent of the population of the United States, at some point in their life, is going to have back pain?" This is because the back is typically the area of your body that takes on the most stress, from carrying heavy loads to a whole lot of pushing and pulling. But even when your back isn’t being stressed, the weight of your upper body is still putting a load on your lower back, causing almost never ending pressure.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Over time, this constant wear and tear—or even just the normal aging process—can cause your back’s discs (spongy sections of cartilage that act as cushioning between your vertebrae) to wear down and to shrink in size, which means that they no longer provide adequate shock absorption, and as a result they begin grinding against one another. Once this occurs, it becomes a condition known as degenerative disc disease (DDD).
However, it’s important to note that DDD will affect nearly everyone to some degree (usually later in life after the discs have had time to sufficiently degenerate). In fact, DDD isn’t really a disease, but is instead a normal change in your spinal discs. Because of this, the condition is not hereditary, and it cannot be diagnosed in advance.
Once degenerative disc disease manifests, it can result in a wide variety of conditions, including moderate to severe neck and/or back pain, weakness, numbness, osteoarthritis, herniated discs, as well as spondylolisthesis and spinal stenosis. However, one of the most common ailments associated with DDD, and one that many product manufacturers claim to help relieve, is sciatica.
Sciatica is a condition that gets its name from the sciatic nerve, which “branches from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg.” This nerve, which is the longest and widest in your body, is responsible for innervating (or supplying organs and tissue with nerves) nearly all the skin on your legs, as well as your back, thigh, leg, and foot muscles.
Despite the immense importance of your sciatic nerve however, a portion of it can become compressed due to a wide variety of reasons, although in “nine out of 10 cases, [it] is caused by a displaced disc in the lower spine,” which can lead to pain, inflammation, and even numbness in your back or legs. Once this occurs, you have what’s known as sciatica.
With this said, sciatica-related back pain is generally mild, only lasts for a short period of time, and in most cases can be successfully treated in a matter of a few weeks. However, for some this pain lasts more than 3 months, at which point it is considered “chronic” and may need to be treated through surgery (see more about this in the following section).
How Do I Know If I Have Degenerative Disc Disease or Sciatica?
If you think that you may be suffering from degenerative disc disease or sciatica, the first thing you should do is speak with your physician. With this said, here are some common symptoms associate with DDD:
- Low-grade pain that flares up during physical activity, especially bending, lifting, or twisting, but is reduced or goes away altogether afterward.
- Neck or back pain that persists for a finite amount of time (typically days or weeks) and then quickly fades away.
- Certain body positions, such as standing or sitting, make the back pain more intense. In instances like these, you may find that walking or running reduces your pain.
On the other hand, while many of sciatica’s symptoms can be similar to DDD, sciatica typically only affects one side of the body and results some fairly distinct symptoms, which tend to start suddenly, even just by sneezing or coughing. These include:
- A persistent, sharp or stabbing pain in one side of the rear, and/or a pain in your leg that worsens when sitting.
- Burning/tingling down one leg, which might also be felt in the foot.
- Weakness, numbness, and/or difficulty moving your foot or leg.
However, keep in mind that sciatica is diagnosed based largely on the symptoms you speak with your physician about, and treatment is progressive. As such, “An MRI can provide direct evidence of a disk problem, but many doctors and some guidelines recommend holding off on getting an imaging test till surgery is a serious option. If the pain goes away, as it often does, then such tests are unnecessary.”
What Can Be Done to Prevent Sciatica & Other Types of Chronic Back Pain?
As we noted above, degenerative disc disease, and the sciatica it causes, is primarily related to the aging process, and cannot always be prevented. However, there are some precautions you can take to delay its onset and/or minimize its effects on your life. These include:
Most doctors recommend anywhere between 30-90 minutes of moderate, low-impact exercise per day, which can provide you with a wide range of benefits related to your back. These include increased blood flow to your muscles, along with the oxygen and nutrients carried by your blood, as well as the release of endorphins, which act as your body’s natural painkillers.
What good is increased blood flow from exercise if your body doesn’t contain the right essential nutrients to help delay the onset of DDD? However, what you should eat is dependent on a wide variety of factors, such as your age, gender, weight, and level of physical activity. As such, you may want to start your nutrition journey at ChooseMyPlate.gov to help you figure out the best foods for your needs. As with anything else though, you should always drink plenty of water, consumer alcohol only in moderation, and stop smoking.
These include improving your posture, learning to use proper lifting techniques, and sleeping on a mattress that provides adequate support.
Treatments & Remedies for Chronic Back Pain & Sciatica
Based on its name, you might understandably think that being diagnosed with degenerative disc disease is disastrous. But it only means that discs break down with age. Even better, most DDD symptoms improve over time once your body re-stabilizes the segment.
And if you’re looking for more good news, here it is: As we mentioned above, sciatica is generally a temporary condition as well, and tends to resolve itself within a matter of weeks.
But what you have an advanced case of DDD, or suffer from frequently recurring sciatica? Where can you turn for relief? When it comes down to it, what can you do to reduce your pain and improve your life? Let’s take a look:
Important note: Remember that not all chronic back pain treatments are created equal (read: clinical evidence supporting their efficacy), whether you’re talking about supplements or surgery. In addition, some patients will experience fantastic results from one treatment, while another experiences nothing. In other words, your mileage may vary.
Natural Remedies: Supplements & Other Products
We mentioned this at the beginning of the article, but it’s important and is worth repeating: Many manufacturers understand that you’re desperate to relieve your chronic back pain, and will use this to convince you to buy their product, regardless of whether it actually works or not.
At HighYa, we’re reviewed a wide variety of products that claim to help relieve your back pain in one way or another, including Copper Back, WedgyWedge, BackBridge, Kyrobak, BeActive Brace, Dr. Ho’s Decompression Belt, SmartRelief, as well as a variety of supplements. And other than claiming to treat your back pain, what do most of these have in common?
With the exception of SmartRelief that uses TENS technology, none of them have sufficient scientific evidence showing that they work as advertised. In fact, products like the BeActive Brace, which claims to relieve sciatica pain using below-the-knee compression, appear to be outright gimmicks.
However, the reality is that, regardless of which back pain product or supplement you’re thinking about purchasing, there’s no way to know which one will work, and which one will simply be a waste of money, prior to trying it. With this said, here are some pointers on how you can help discern between which products you should buy, and which ones you should walk away from:
Is There Clinical Evidence to Support Their Claims?
Countless products that claim to relieve chronic back pain also claim to have a wealth of scientific evidence to support the fact that they work as advertised. However, the reality is that the vast majority of these manufacturers have cherry-picked clinical evidence to make it seem that their claims are justified, but if you actually read the studies they reference, you might (at the very least) find out that they’re stretching the truth.
Sure, trying to read through a clinical study can be boring and tedious, but it can go a long way toward discerning whether or not a product is legitimate. If all else fails, consult with your physician about the product, and bring some of the clinical studies with you during your visit.
Is It Made by a Reputable Manufacturer?
The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of products that effectively treat sciatica and other types of chronic back pain will have been created by someone with a medical background. Admittedly, this isn’t always the case, but it will certainly start you off in the right direction.
On the other hand, many of these products are created by “As Seen on TV” manufacturers, who focus more on hyping their product than they do on creating ones that effectively relieve back pain based on sound scientific principles. This, in combination with high shipping and handling charges, poor customer service, and reputations for poor quality products that don’t perform as advertised, means that you’ll definitely want to think twice—and maybe even three times—before purchasing one of these products to treat your chronic back pain.
Are You Thinking About Purchasing a Nutritional Supplement?
As we noted multiple times in our Nutritional Supplements Buyer’s Guide, nutritional supplements (whether geared toward chronic back pain or something else altogether), are not regulated by the FDA. Ultimately, this means that supplements manufacturers can make essentially any claim they want, without backing it up with clinical evidence. In fact, their claims can be completely made up, without a single shred of truth behind them.
Because of this, if you’re seriously thinking about purchasing a nutritional supplement to help relieve your chronic back pain, gather as much information as you can using consumer review websites like HighYa, and then consult with your physician.
Although opiate-based pain medications (e.g. codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone) can provide fast, effective relief from sciatica and other types of chronic back pain, most physicians will only prescribe them as a last resort, due in no small part to their addictive nature. If you do end up taking one of these types of medications, it will usually only be for a short period of time.
Typically used for only 1-2 weeks at a time, steroids (such as dexamethasone, methylprednisolone, and prednisone) may not provide long-term relief from your sciatica or chronic back pain, but can help significantly reduce inflammation.
Other Non-Prescription Remedies
According to a 2010 study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, “Sixty percent of people with sciatica who didn't get relief from other therapies and then tried spinal manipulation experienced the same degree of pain relief as patients who eventually had surgery.” As such, many patients have had great success with spinal manipulation, which may be able to help restore some of your mobility.
In some studies, acupuncture has shown to be an effective method of providing relief for individuals with sciatica or other types of chronic back pack. However, acupuncture is typically useful only for general pain relief, so individuals with more severe pain levels may not benefit as much from these treatments.
Whether you’re visiting a physical therapy center or a professional athletic trainer, physical activity can go a long way toward reducing your sciatica and chronic back pain. Most of these exercises focus on improving strength in your core and on creating flexibility in your muscles.
Alternating hot and cold compresses, for 20 minutes per cycle, in the area where you’re experiencing pain can help reduce inflammation and provide temporary relief.
While massage certainly won’t stop your sciatica or chronic back pain, it can help increase circulation and promote healing. And hey, let’s be honest; massages just feel good too, and can offer a welcome respite from chronic back pain.
NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs)
Despite the technical-sounding name, these are simply over the counter medications that have the ability to reduce inflammation, pain, and fever. Some of the most common examples of NSAIDs are aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
As we mentioned above, surgery for sciatica and other types of chronic back pain is typically only used as a last resort when all other pain relief methods haven’t worked. We’ll cover some of the most popular surgical options below, but it’s important to keep in mind that your surgical needs are based on your specific diagnosis by your physician.
Used in cases of lumbar disc herniation, this small open surgery will remove the portion of the disc that’s pinching your sciatic nerve. Thankfully, approximately 90%-95% of patients experience pain relief after recovering from this surgery.
If your sciatica is caused by lumbar spinal stenosis, then this surgery may be able to help by removing a small portion of the disc that’s pinching your sciatic nerve. According to Spine-Health.com, approximately 70%-80% of patients experience relief from this surgery.
There are several different types of these surgeries, which “use small instruments that are inserted between the vertebrae and into the middle of the disc.” From there, the surgeon will remove a portion of the affected disc by cutting it out, sucking out the disc’s center, or using lasers to burn it out.
After making a small incision, your surgeon will then insert a balloon device into the fractured vertebrae, inflate it, and then deflate it. Then, a cement-like substance is introduced into the cavity left by the balloon.
Instead of using a balloon like with Kyphoplasty, here your physician will inject the cement-like substance directly into your vertebrae using a needle. Important note: According to experts, there is little evidence suggesting that Kyphoplasty or Vertebroplasty work any better than other non-surgical treatments.
Lumbar Spinal Fusion
Perhaps the most serious back pain surgery in this list, this occur when a surgeon fuses two or more vertebrae in the lower back in order to relieve narrowing of the spinal canal that’s squeezing the spinal cord or nerves. After surgery is complete, you’ll have a fairly significant recovery time, which may even include physical therapy. Like some of the other surgeries noted here, “studies do not show a clear difference between spinal fusion and intense rehabilitation for treating chronic low back pain from degenerative changes in the spine.”
Whether you suffer from sciatica or any other type of chronic back pain, and whether you’re looking at natural remedies, prescription or non-prescription remedies, or surgery, your specific set of symptoms will determine your best course of action.
Because of this, it’s important to discuss your symptoms with your physician, and to always maintain an open line of communication about any treatments you’re considering.