Alternative Therapies for Back Pain

A major study on the use of alternative therapies found that almost 60 percent of people who consulted a medical doctor for back pain had tried some sort of alternative therapy. When contemplating one of these options it’s important to remember that the treatments are considered alternative precisely because there is not enough scientific evidence to prove that they work consistently.

You should be particularly cautious about undertaking any treatments that are expensive and require more than half a dozen visits. And if you are using any type of alternative therapy, be sure to inform your doctor. Commonly used alternative methods for relieving back pain include acupuncture, acupressure, massage, relaxation therapy, biofeedback, yoga and spinal manipulation.


Mounting evidence suggests that yoga can relieve chronic back pain in a select group of people. There are many types of yoga. Some, like Kundalini, Ashtanga and Bikram, are fairly specialized and may be too challenging for beginners. On the other hand, Viniyoga and Iyengar yoga are appropriate for newcomers and may be appropriate for people with low back pain caused by minor issues such as muscle strains and sprains.

If a more serious condition, such as a herniated disk, scoliosis, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis or a vertebral compression fracture is responsible for back pain, certain yoga poses may worsen the condition, and in some cases, it may be best to avoid yoga altogether.


This treatment is based on the traditional Chinese medical theory that pain and disease occur when the body’s natural energies (chi) are out of balance. The Chinese believe that chi is conducted through the body along pathways (meridians) that intersect at specific points in the body. Stimulating these points through acupuncture needles is meant to correct the improper flow of chi, thereby relieving the problem.

The needles used in acupuncture are as thin as a hair. In general, 10 to 15 needles are inserted into the back to treat pain. Sometimes they are stimulated with electricity or heat or are turned after insertion. Acupuncture may relieve pain by triggering nerves to send out natural, pain-blocking chemicals (endorphins) within the body. A recent analysis of 33 studies of acupuncture for back pain found that acupuncture effectively relieves chronic low back pain, but there’s no evidence that acupuncture is more effective than other therapies.

Acupuncture is one of the few alternative therapies commonly covered by many insurance companies.


Like acupuncture, acupressure is based on the same theory of energy channels in the body. Continuous pressure is exerted on a trigger spot for three to five minutes to stimulate the flow of healing energy. However, this pressure may only alleviate the pain temporarily.

Massage therapy

Besides relaxing muscles and easing tension in the back, massage is believed to temporarily overpower pain signals to the brain. Massage therapy should be performed only by a licensed massage therapist.

Relaxation therapy

High levels of stress not only adversely affect overall health, but can also contribute to back pain. Relaxation therapy teaches muscle relaxation and breathing techniques for coping with the stress of everyday life. Included among popular relaxation techniques is meditation, designed to calm the mind as well as the body. Researchers have theorized that the metabolic response to meditation—the opposite of the response to stress—may counter the negative effects of stress.


Using electronic sensors, biofeedback measures an individual’s automatic, stress-responsive body functions—such as breathing patterns, pulse rate and muscle tension—while the person practices different methods of relaxation. Data from the sensors indicate which relaxation techniques are most effective for that individual. Biofeedback can also help train a person to regulate his or her body functions consciously, reducing the impact of stress on the body.

Spinal manipulation

For treatment of back pain lasting less than a month, spinal manipulation can be a good choice, provided there is no evidence of a spinal nerve root disorder (such as a herniated disk or spinal stenosis) or fracture. If symptoms do not improve after four weeks, however, use of spinal manipulation should be reevaluated.

A chiropractor, osteopath or physical therapist may provide spinal manipulation, adjusting the vertebrae to reduce pain caused by poor alignment. The health-care professional must be sure that back pain is not due to bone or joint disorders, because manipulating a spine that has been damaged by osteoporosis, for example, could result in further, more serious injury. X-rays of the area are usually taken before spinal manipulation to rule out vertebral fractures.

In properly screened people, spinal manipulation by a trained professional appears to be safe. Some people may experience discomfort, headache or tiredness after treatment, but these effects are usually temporary. Serious complications of lower-spine manipulation, such as paralysis and death, are rare. Complications are more common with manipulations of the neck.

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.