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

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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