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Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) for Low Back Pain

Acupuncture, Massage, Yoga, and Herbs

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to an array of healing practices and medicines that exist outside of conventional treatments. These practices are thought to provide a more natural and holistic approach to healing a variety of ailments. Many people across the globe find success in treating their lower back pain with alternative techniques; in fact, back pain is the most common reason people say they turn to CAM1.

CAM therapies can be used alone to treat lower back pain, or they can be combined with conventional medicine. As with any new treatment, it is important to discuss CAM therapies with your doctor prior to trying them out.

Common CAM approaches for low back pain include:

  • acupuncture: A part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is used to treat a variety of painful conditions. It involves the insertion of very thin needles into pressure points on the body to help relieve pain. A recent study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) showed that acupuncture may be effective in treating chronic pain.2 There has been some controversy over the usefulness of acupuncture; some believe that it’s nothing more than a placebo and that patients experience pain relief merely because they want to experience relief. However, the NCCAM study provides evidence that acupuncture is more than just a placebo.
  • yoga and stretching: Yoga combines stretching and lengthening exercises with breathing techniques and mindful awareness to help you focus on the area causing your pain. Check out our 5 Simple Yoga Poses for Back Pain slideshow to help you get started.
  • chiropractors: Though considered part of CAM, chiropractic treatment requires licensure in all states. Chiropractors cannot prescribe medications, but they can assess and treat your lower back pain using therapeutic procedures such as spinal manipulation. They can also help you create an exercise and stretching regimen that targets and treats your lower back. 
  • massage: A 2011 NCCAM-funded study found that massage may provide short term benefits for people with low back pain3. If you do plan on visiting a massage therapist, be sure to let him or her know about your symptoms so that your lower back can receive special treatment.
  • herbal medications: Herbal medicines come in a variety of forms, such as teas, capsules, tablets, and essential oils. Remember that herbs can interact with each other (and with conventional medications), so tell your doctor about any herbal remedies you plan to take.

A wealth of information available about CAM techniques and medications for low back pain can make it difficult to know where to start. To help you sort through it all, make sure to research all CAM specialists carefully (looking specifically for licensed practitioners), and to ask your doctor for trustworthy recommendations.

Updated on: 09/05/14

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