Too many doctors refuse to think outside the narrow confines of the mainstream medical establishment – especially when it comes to chronic back pain.
Back pain is one of the most common reasons Americans go to the doctor, which explains why it’s also one of America’s biggest businesses.
But I never cease to be astounded when patients come to my wellness clinic with back pain and tell me they’ve already had a barrage of dangerous Big Pharma prescriptions pushed at them.
These drugs include highly addictive opiates like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin.
Meanwhile, big bucks are also made when doctors push pointless and potentially dangerous surgeries.
The latest, highly lucrative trend in back pain is a procedure called “spinal fusion,” in which where two segments of the vertebrae are effectively welded together.
My concern is that many spinal fusions are unnecessary and risky. A number of these surgeries have resulted in paralysis, life-threatening complications and even death – and many didn’t need to be performed in the first place.
I am always opposed to unnecessary drugs and surgery, unless as an absolute last resort – because there are real, proven alternatives.
This is a view that hasn’t made me popular with the mainstream medical establishment – but I take my Hippocratic Oath very seriously: Patients come first!
The truth is that many medical conditions can be treated successfully with no risk and very little cost to the patient.
Take yoga, for example. Not only do I encourage patients with back pain to take up this ancient therapy, the yoga classes at my South Florida wellness clinic are big hit with my employees.
Originally, my hope was that yoga would gently help my team release stress and improve their physical fitness. I wanted them to develop more limberness, better muscle tone and healthier breathing habits.
For several thousand years, yoga has succeeded in doing all of these things. Also, unlike other exercise programs, it doesn’t believe in that “no pain, no gain” nonsense.
Participants only do what comes comfortably, so you can gently develop more strength and flexibility.
I hoped that fitter employees would be happier, calmer, more focused and more efficient. And the classes accomplished everything I wanted.
And my patients’ experiences – as well as those of my team – mirror several studies that show how yoga can alleviate back pain.
The health benefits of yoga are well documented. These include controlling mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.1,2
It has also helped people lower high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high blood sugar, and the ratio of LDL, “bad cholesterol,” 3 to HDL, “good cholesterol.” And it has reduced inflammation and fatigue in cancer patients.4
Studies have also shown that yoga reduces cortisol levels, a critical biomarker of stress.5, 6
As an anti-aging specialist, this is particularly interesting to me. Stress and cortisol have been shown to shorten telomeres.
Telomeres cap the ends of each cell’s chromosomes to prevent them from unraveling. Every time a cell replicates, its telomeres become a little shorter. This is how we age.7,8
So the longer your telomeres, the older you are likely to live and younger you are likely to feel.
Yoga has also treated chronic back pain more effectively than many standard remedies. According to one recent study, it beat out acupuncture, bed rest, pain killers, spinal manipulation and exercise classes.9
For serious back pain, I suggest patients turn to a highly trained “yoga therapist.” Some yoga therapists began as physical therapists and then learned yoga. Others started as yoga instructors and underwent advanced training on how to deal with stressed or injured backs.
In severe cases, patients should seek out private sessions. While working one-on-one, the therapist can tailor exercises to meet each patient’s abilities and needs.
But you can ease many minor and moderate back pains with a particular yoga technique that goes back tens of thousands of years – a good, old-fashioned foot rub.
Many yoga teachers will tell you your feet are the foundation of your body. If your feet are out of kilter, your ankles are out of kilter. If your ankles are off, your knees are off…
And that chain-reaction continues all the way up your spine to your shoulders and neck.
So, here is a little therapy plan I give to my patients. To begin, find a comfortable sitting position, where you can also reach your feet.
There are no rules on how to do this, but here is a common protocol to help you get going:
- Pull your right foot toward you and cradle its outside edge in your left hand or on your left knee;
- Next, use your right thumb to gently trace the line along the foot’s inside edge from the ball to just before the heel. The energy from the bones and muscles along this line usually reflect what’s going on with your spine;
- Now apply a bit more pressure, and use your thumb to gently feel your way down the line again. Wherever, you find a tender or swollen spot, apply pressure with your thumb in a circular motion for about a minute;
- Continue to the next tender spot and perform the same massage. Go down the line two or three times, or until you can’t find any sore spots anymore;
- Next, use your thumb to trace the arc where your heel and your soul meet. This area reflects problems with your sciatic nerve. Again, gently seek out the tender spots and rub them out;
- Now perform the same procedure on your sole along the arc, just beneath your major toe joints;
- Finally, use your fingers to gently massage the top of your foot, along the bony arc below the toes. These areas should reflect troubles in your shoulders and upper back.
Now do the same thing with your left foot… and feel this ancient magic begin to work wonders on your stress and backache… and your telomeres.
To Your Good Health,
Al Sears, MD, CNS
1. Russinova, Zlatka, et al. “Use of alternative health-care practices by persons with serious mental illness: Perceived benefits.” Am J Public Health. October 2002; 92(10): 1600. PMCID: PMC14472891603.
2. Balasubramaniam, M., et al. “Yoga on our minds: A systemic review of yoga for neuropsychiatric disorders.” Front Psychiatry. 2013 Jan 25; 3: 117.
3. Caffrey, Mary K. “Evidence builds on yoga, but no reimbursement yet.” The American Journal of Managed Care. Published online on May 20, 2014. ajmc.com/publications/evidence-based-diabetes-management/2014/May-2014/Evidence-Builds-on-Yoga-but-No-Reimbursement-Yet. Downloaded on February 20, 2015.
4. Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., et al. “Yoga’s impact on inflammation, mood, and fatigue in breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial.” The Journal of Clinical Oncology. January 27, 2014. JCO.2013.51.8860.
5. Yadav, K.R., et al. “Efficacy of a short-term yoga-based lifestyle intervention in reducing stress and inflammation: Preliminary results.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. July 23, 2012; 18:7.
6. Banasik, J., et al. “Effect of lyengar yoga practice on fatigue and diurnal salivary cortisol concentration in breast cancer survivors.” Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. March 2011; 23;3, P135-142.
7. pel, E.E., et al. “Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress.” PNAS, December 7, 2004; 101: 49, P17312-17315.
8. Choi, Jenny, et al. “Reduced telomerase activity in human T-lymphocytes exposed to cortisol.” Brain Behav Immun. 2008 May; 22(4): 600-605.
9. Tilbrook, H.E., et al. “Yoga for chronic low back pain: A randomized trial.” Annals of Internal Medicine. 2011; 155(9):569-578. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-155-9-201111010-00003.