Treating Back Pain Without Drugs 2.0

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Three years ago I wrote Treating Back Pain Without Drugs. Since that essay keeps getting hits and I’ve learned a few more things about dealing with pain without using drugs, I thought I’d write an update. I’ve had chronic back problems for years, but I’ve been mostly pain free without using drugs. I have spinal stenosis, which keeps me from laying flat or standing for long periods. If I aggravate the spinal stenosis it tends to spread to the muscles that causes back pain.

I have three kinds of symptoms which I control without drugs:

  • inflammation – tends to magnify other symptoms
  • neuropathy – feet, legs, mostly on right side
  • muscle pain – lower back, hips, sometimes legs


I went through years of trying to deal with back pain using drugs. They’d cover up symptoms, but I never could escape the pains entirely. I kept trying other ways to fight pain. I’d tried different sleep positions, a better bed, and using pillows between my legs or under my knees to align myself symmetrically while I slept. Nothing helped for long. I’d always wake up feeling worse. I finally concluded it was lying in bed that was causing the problem, so I started sleeping in a recliner. That made a huge difference! I still took pain pills and anti-inflammatory drugs, but sleeping in the chair seemed to fix most of my problem. It was around this time I began going to a back specialist. I thought I was having hip problems, because most of my pain was in my hips, with numbness down my legs. They did a MRI and said my hip was fine, but I had spinal stenosis due to arthritis and some bad discs. I was sent to a pain management specialist; he prescribed physical therapy. That was the second major remedy I found!

I’ve since learned that if I do my physical therapy exercises daily I can keep the pain down to almost nothing without drugs. Mostly I’d have numbness in my feet. If I skipped a day of exercising I could feel the muscles tightening up in my lower back. If I skipped another day or two, I start having a fair amount of lower back pain, spreading into my right hip. If I allow the pain to gain a foothold,  I’m back on drugs, and I’ll have a hard time moving around, especially getting up and down from a chair.

One of the annoying things about the spinal stenosis is I could no longer walk for exercise. I eventually found Z-Coil shoes, which have big ugly springs in the heel that act like a shock-absorber for my spine. Without the Z-Coil shoes, I’d frequently feel like I was stepping in a hole or slipping on ice, which I think was caused by pinching my nerve stepping too hard. With the Z-Coil shoes I could walk about a mile without causing too much numbness. But, the more I walked, the fatter my feet felt. If I keep pushing it, the numbness would work up my right leg. If things got really bad, I’d have numbness in my left leg.

Between sleeping in a chair, doing physical therapy exercises and wearing the Z-Coil shoes, I felt pretty good most of the time as long as I didn’t stand or walk too long. My feet remained somewhat numb all the time.

Unfortunately, the anti-inflammatory pills I was prescribed started bothering my stomach, so I stopped taking them. It was then I started reading about anti-inflammatory diets. This really helped with the numbness. Last summer, I started on a plant based diet to lower my cholesterol. I lost 25 pounds. I don’t know if it was losing the weight or the anti-inflammatory properties of the diet, but I was able to increase my walking to 2 miles at a stretch, and the numbness in my feet practically disappeared. This made me very happy. Later on, I was feeling so good that I started cheating on my diet, having some fun foods again, and on some days skipped my physical therapy. I didn’t gain weight, but I started having trouble walking again. The numbness returned. I had to stop walking for exercise for a couple weeks. I then went back to faithfully doing my physical therapy and sticking to the plant based diet,  and I’m now able to walk two miles in the morning again, and the numbness is almost gone.

I’m amazed by how much the plant based diet helps. It drastically lowered my bad cholesterol, let me lose 25 pounds in three months, and significantly reduced inflammation. It’s hard to believe some food can be so inflammatory, but going on and off the plant based diet has let me feel the inflammation come and go. I think the anti-inflammatory aspects of the diet were more important than losing the weight in helping with my back.

Along the way, I’ve discovered the B12 helps neuropathy. I take either sublingual tablets or get shots.

I’ve also had a few incidents of my upper back going out, giving me neck pain, with the pain running down my left arm. I’ve also discovered upper-body exercises will solve this problem too.

In all cases I’d recommend anyone wanting to exercise instead of using drugs see their doctor about which exercises are appropriate and safe for their condition. My spinal stenosis isn’t cured. I’ve just figured out how not to aggravate it. I feel like I’ve learned to walk a razor’s edge, and if I’m careful, I can avoid pain and drugs.

I’ve been catching episodes of Classical Stretch on PBS with Miranda Esmonde-White. I believe her philosophy and exercises might be an appropriate tool too. Miranda’s stretches are like my physical therapy exercises, but she has vastly more kinds of stretches, which would systematically work the entire body.

Essay 981 – Table of Contents

11 thoughts on “Treating Back Pain Without Drugs 2.0”

  1. I have a back problem but it’s not the same as yours. Mine is from a combination of arthritis, spina bifida, and osteoporosis. Losing about 25 pounds helped tremendously. I have very small delicate bones, I was tiny as a child and young adult – actually, my weight gain was after age 50. Then after the 35 pound loss at age 64 – after retirement, I gained about 15 of them back! – And along came the backaches again. I know that if I get the weight back down the back will be easier. The big trouble is I carry the weight in my gut – not good for the back. I take acetaminophen once in awhile, ibuprofen sometimes – and plain old aspirin from time to time. This morning my hip hurt when I got out of bed – lol – getting old is not for sissies.

    The plant based thing sounds great but I’d miss the butter and eggs. I just do what I can but I eat a lot of chicken and some fish, but almost no beef or pork. The dairy products would be killers. I do eat a lot of green salad with lots of goodies in it.

    1. I clung to my butter, eggs and cheese for years and years after my doctor warned me about them. When I finally gave them up, my cholesterol took a nose dive, and my doctor feels vindicated and happy. I tried to go back to eggs,cheese and butter in a small controlled way, and that’s when I felt the inflammation come back. I’m back on the plant based diet.

  2. Hi, Physical therapy is my religion! And I have this really nice and gorgeous physical therapist! Back problem and pain are under control is I do my exercises, I have not had physical therapy treatments for a while. I am still uncomfortable standing for long periods of time (lines in airports, argh!) but no acute pain. I have a birth defect to L5, the disk has slipped somehow and the nerves get pinched. Exercises are meant to keep posture optimal to minimize pinching. I’ve never tried drugs, I’ve always had discomfort, and I went straight to physical therapy when I started experiencing acute pain. PT is my first resort for all joint pain, whether due to wear and tear, or accident. So far, so good…

  3. Just a little report: I kind of started a way higher plant diet this morning – what for breakfast? – I had fried rice made with olive oil, mushrooms, onions, cold cooked rice, peas and carrots. No eggs, no meat, no salt no soy sauce. I think it’s going to have to be that or steel cut oatmeal without milk. (That’s fine.) My usual old breakfast was either eggs or yogurt or ham and cheese on a Wassa cracker. – lunch is a big green salad with no little chunks of ham or chicken as per usual. For dinner there’s a wild rice/pecan dish I’m looking at – ??? – potatoes with salsa? – Or what? I’m on a hunt I guess but it will take time to convert. Might not be able to do dinner for awhile. But the butter and yogurt will go as well as most meats. We’ll see –

    1. Becky, you might like to visit for recipes, but also watch the documentary on Netflix if you can. For some reason, the plant based diet also gives up oils. They love steel-cut oatmeal, and most people eat it with almond milk. I have a granola with almond milk plus blueberries, strawberries and blackberries depending on the season and costs. I eat a lot of varieties of brown rice and beans, or lentils. I also eat a lot of salads. And soups are a constant. I get various kinds of fat free dressings. I also eat lots of fruits, and various veggie dishes. I do cheat, and eat nuts, like pecans, almonds and walnuts. But if you have severe heart disease those are a no-no. So are avocados. I eat them anyway.

      1. Thanks – yes, I think I’ll leave the olive oil, avocados and nuts. I like soy milk – and almond milk – on Cheerios is good – lol. Fruit is good. I like the way the link gradually took all the goodies away starting with breakfast. Shoot – I’d improve if I just eliminated butter, but I can do better than that.

        My last diet was almost reversed with very high protein and low, low fat and carbs. I lost 25 pounds.

        I do nice soups – I was looking at homemade veggie broth this morning – I’ve done that before. Salads are easy but I’ll probably get sick of them. What about bread? I can make that – bread maker stuff.

        I don’t have serious heart disease but it’s definitely not good with high blood pressure and high cholesterol and meds for both.

        1. Breads are approved on condition. Check out the Forks Over Knives site. My cholesterol and blood pressure are great on this diet. And my doctor is very happy because she pestered me for years with drugs. I take 10mg of a statin, and a beta-blocker, but that’s because of my cardiologist and getting a stent. Dr. Esselstyn, who worked with severe heart cases recommends the plant based diet and a low dose statin. He’s against nuts and avocados. His book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease is plant based, and he’s featured in Forks Over Knives documentary. By the way, Forks Over Knives claims other health benefits. One person they featured was a lady in her seventies who started running after the diet, and is now doing triathlons.

  4. Congratulations, Jim! I’m glad that’s working for you.

    Physical therapy really helped with my back pain, too, but without the problems, I kept slacking off more and more. Now, I never do the exercises. Well, I’ll probably start again the next time my back goes out. Heh, heh.

    And I, too, have found that sleeping in a recliner makes a big difference. I don’t know why, but it works. I spend part of the night in my recliner, with the rest of it in bed. The bed is a lot harder on my back, though. That’s very clear.

    Oh, and I’ve been living on bacon and tomato sandwiches for the past four months. I doubt if that’s helped, but my tomatoes are almost finished for the year (I still have a few I picked before the plants froze), so we’ll see. 🙂

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