Treating Back Pain Without Drugs

Most people I meet with chronic back pain only fight the pain with drugs.  I’ve discovered some other techniques to try.  Overall, what I’ve learned is my back is trying to communicate with me and all pills do is tell it to shut up.

I am not a medical expert of any kind.  I’m only recounting my personal experience with living with back pain.  I’ve greatly benefited from going to physical therapy (PT) and the training the PT doctors gave me to do daily exercises on my own.  Although you can find all kinds of PT exercises for back pain online, I highly recommend talking to a doctor before doing any exercise if you are suffering from chronic back pain.  The point I want to make is I’ve discovered some ways to avoid back pain without depending on powerful drugs.

Years ago when my degenerative back disease began and I was in a lot of pain I took prescription pain pills and muscle relaxers, but when I learned my condition was chronic I stopped taking those pills

I have three kinds of symptoms:

  • inflammation/tension/tightness (lower back)
  • numbness/nerve sensations (foot and leg)
  • muscle pain (lower back, hip, leg)

The inflammation/tension/tightness is almost always present in my lower back but in varying degrees of discomfort.  If things get worse, my foot goes numb and the numbness works up my right leg.  When things get even worse, my left leg goes numb too.  When things get really bad I have increasing constant dull pain and infrequent sharp shooting pains in my lower back, hip and leg.

I can keep the sharp and shooting pains away if I do my PT exercises daily, do regularly rowing exercises on the Bowflex, and if I don’t walk or stand for longer than 10 minutes.

I can keep the numbness to a minimum if I take B vitamins and exercise regularly, and don’t stand straight or lie flat for any length of time.

I used to keep the inflammation/tension/tightness to a low level with anti-inflammation pills, over-the-counter pain pills and regular PT exercises.  However in recent months the anti-inflammation pills have messed up my stomach and intestines and I’ve had to stop them.*[See update below]  I’m learning how to keep this kind of pain at a minimum without those drugs by carefully babying my back and not inflaming it.  No lifting, lots of rest, more exercising.

I now ask younger people to lift stuff for me, and I even take the elevator sometimes.  I’m getting old and creaky.

The exercises I learned from my PT classes are very simple, like these:


I’m writing this because I’ve had to stop taking any anti-inflammation medicine because it’s tore up my stomach and intestines, and I’ve learned that I can get about the same relief without those drugs if I’m careful.  Although my doctors have prescribed some powerful pain pills I’ve avoided taking them.  I have lived off of various anti-inflammation drugs over the last few years, but I can’t take them anymore.  Doctors keep prescribing drugs that are easier on the stomach, but evidently my stomach is on the wimpy side, or years of taking pills have beaten it up badly.

I’ve always liked the anti-inflammation drugs because they reduce the feeling of inflammation and tension in my lower back, but when I had to quit these drugs I realized that those drugs were the cause of some of that inflammation.  Taking a pill would reduce the tension, and the wearing off the pill hours later would make it spring back.   After several days of not taking the anti-inflammation pills, I had much less inflammation and tension.  I’ve started and quit several different kinds of anti-inflammation pills and I’ve noticed this affect twice now.

Lower back tightness and inflammation builds up during the workday, especially when I do a lot of walking and standing, and time and again I’ve discovered I can quiet my back by just exercising and/or resting.  That made me think some of the stuff I was feeling as inflammation was drug withdrawal or drug craving.

I’ve been dealing with my back problem for years and it’s a degenerative disease.  Walking, standing, or lying flat makes my back worse, so I’ve learned to live with limitations by altering my lifestyle.  For instance I no longer sleep in a bed.  Sleeping in a recliner significantly reduced my daily pain.  Not walking for exercise reduced my pain.  Getting a better office chair at work and home help too.

I also bought Z-Coil shoes and they have been a huge help.  Before I got Z-Coil shoes when my back was stressed I’d get weird sensations when walking.  I’d feel like I was stepping into a hole or sliding on ice with some steps.  I assumed I was compressing a nerve.  The Z-Coil shoes act like a shock absorber so I don’t compress the nerve and feel those weird sensations.  I also tried Gravity Defyers but their springs weren’t powerful enough to help me.  Z-Coil springs are very large and visible so they are very ugly shoes, but I wear them because they let me keep working, and they let me walk further than I can without them.

Z-Coil shoe
Z-Coil shoe

I’ve tried all kinds of drugs over the years, various pain pills, muscle relaxers, and anti-inflammation meds.  For my particular problem I’ve learned that physical therapy is the most effective treatment.  I do take an occasional Tylenol or aspirin, but daily PT is best.  If I don’t do my PT my back will slowly tense up, and over days I’ll get hip pain, pain down the leg, and numbness in my foot, and then a lot of lower back pain.  When the pain is very bad I have a hard time getting up or down.  Doing daily physical therapy keeps the worst pain away.

I seldom skip my daily PT, and when I do, I regret it.

I still have a certain amount of discomfort, but not the major pain.  I’ve learned I need to do  Bowflex exercises once a day to reduce a lot of tension in my lower back and fight off leg numbness.  I do a rowing exercise daily, just 130 strokes.  I’ve also learned from trial and error that taking a B-complex vitamin reduces the numbness in my foot and leg.

The last technique I’m working on to help myself is losing weight.  I’ve been overweight for decades, and at 235 pounds, just existing is like carry two sacks of cement with me at all time.  However, feeling bad makes me eat, so I’m always gaining weight.  When I get up to 240 my back gets much worse and that pain makes me diet for awhile.  As I drop back to 230 it gets better, I treat myself to junk food, and then I yo-yo back up to 240.  I’m hoping in the next year to get down to 200.

My back doctor has told me time and again to avoid surgery at all costs.  And before I consider surgery to try nerve block shots.  I’ve never liked the idea of nerve block shots and now they are in the news because of contamination, I doubt I’ll ever try them.  I did hear about a new surgical technique that’s just finished clinical trials and could come online in 2014.  The new technique involves regenerating the discs in the back, and I like that idea.  So I’m hoping exercise and losing weight will keep me going until this new technique is FDA approved and my insurance covers it.

JWH – 12/2/12

*Update 1/16/14

Last year I learned I had problems with gluten and gave it up.  I did it because of stomach and chest pains, which went away immediately.  But over the weeks of going without gluten I realized my inflammation was much improved and much of my joint pain had disappeared.  My knees seem twenty years younger.  I still have problems with the spinal stenosis, but much of my other pain has disappeared.  Over time going without gluten has made me feel much better.

I’ve told some of my friends about pain reduction through avoiding gluten, and one lady who had regular joint and arthritis pain gave up gluten and she reported she was eventually able to go without her pain pills.  If you have chronic pain of any sort, you might experiment with going gluten free and see if it helps.

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Damn, I’m Out of Shape!!!

I went swimming today, the first time in probably a quarter of a century.  It was an eye opening experience.  If I fell off a boat without a life preserver I’d be dead in 2 minutes, maybe even 1 minute.  I was never a good swimmer, nor could tread water well, but I had the stamina to struggle along for maybe 50 yards.  I could have put up a good fight.  At 60 and weighing 232 pounds I’d just go under immediately in open water and not come up.

When I was first married, and we lived at an apartment with a pool, I weighed 155 pounds and could run for miles.  I thought before I got in the pool today that fat floated.  Boy was I wrong.  My fat don’t float!  I sink.

For years people have been telling me to take up swimming to help my back.  I’ve always said no because swimming is inconvenient.  But my neighbor, who has a pool, has been urging me to use her pool, so this morning I gave it a try.  I jumped in off the ladder at the deep end and immediately discovered my lack of buoyancy.  It was a struggle to get back to the surface.

At first I thought her pool too small to do laps, but then I tried to do a lap, on the short length, which can’t be more than 20-25 feet.  I made it, using my flailing doggie paddle style, but I had to grab on the edge of the pool and catch my breath after just the first crossing.

I did some experiments trying to hold my breath under water using the stop-watch feature of my Casio.  At first I could only go 8 seconds.  Eventually I worked up to 13.  That’s pitiful.  I guess that’s a sign of getting old.  When I was young it wasn’t much trouble to hold my breath under water for 60 seconds or more.

I stuck with doing laps and I went back and forth maybe 10 times, either doggie paddling, or some kind of crude breast stroke.  I tried the normal crawl one time but I just don’t have that kind of coordination.

I’m not completely out of shape.  After swimming I did 20 minutes of physical therapy and then 10 minutes of Bowflex.  But it’s obvious that being overweight and 60 that I’m at a lifetime low point when it comes to stamina.  Before my back got bad I did stair walking at work and could do 20-24 floors on my break.  I can ride my bike for 30-45 minutes now, but I’ve discovered that unless I’m riding uphill, bikes are so efficient that it’s not much exercise. 

It so weird watching my body decline, because mentally I feel like I did when I was 19.

So far I’ve lost 6 pounds on my diet.  I do believe if I worked hard I could regain some of my stamina – but will I?  I’ve discovered in recent years I’ve adapted to a very sedentary lifestyle.  My back limits my activities, especially standing or walking, so I’ve just accepted doing less.  I think I need to get an exercise bike to push myself.  Sitting on a bike, leaning forward on the handlebars, doesn’t hurt my back.  Swimming, or more precisely, trying to swim, didn’t seem to hurt my back either.  So I’ll keep it up.  At least in warm weather.

On one hand I feel like just accepting getting old and doing less, on the other hand I believe I should fight the inevitable.  I see all these natural catastrophes on TV and how old people need so much help just to run away from danger.  I don’t want to be like that.  I see news reports of people rushing to rescue stuff in their homes before fires engulf them.  With my stamina I couldn’t rescue much.  And living in an emergency shelter would be very hard on me.  I’ve gotten old and soft and addicted to creature comforts, the crutch of modern air conditioned living. 

I wouldn’t be much of a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world.

I’ve become an animal highly adapted to a very specific environment.  I’ve developed a routine where I expend very little energy to survive.  But what will life be like at 70?  Or 80?  I would ask about 90, but I just can’t imagine my declining stamina letting me live to 90.  But I see 90 year-old people all the  time – but most of them move very little.

Do I ride the current slope of my declining stamina, or do I made a big effort and bend that declining slope into a rising one?  Could I regain the stamina I had at 50 or 40?  That might be dreaming, but I do know people my age that are many times more active than I am.  However, I think they’ve always been many times more active than I was.

I’ll keep you posted.  I need some way of measuring progress though.  Have to think about that.  Are there standardized tests for stamina?

JWH – 6/30/12