As an Ayurvedic Practitioner who works in a chiropractic office I see a lot of people with back pain. I think it’s safe to call it an epidemic, with 80% of Americans experiencing back pain at some point in their life, and 31 million Americans affected by back pain at any given time (1). Back pain is the most common reason people miss work and the second most common reason for a visit to the doctor’s office, according to the American Chiropractic Association. We depend on our backs for the most basic daily functions— standing, sitting, bending, and walking. Our backs are, quite literally, the backbone of our existence. The back is formed by a complex web of bones, discs, nerves, fibers, ligaments, muscles, and blood vessels, with the nerves sending signals to the brain and the rest of the body. So the back is the keeper of mind-body integrity. Spinal cord injuries can lead to paralysis, loss of brain and physical function, and even death. Let’s face it, our backs can make or break us. So keeping our backs healthy should be our number one priority!
AYURVEDA’S APPROACH TO BACK PAIN
Ayurveda offers much insight and many practical tools for ensuring that our backs support us for years on end. The first approach to resolving any back pain requires investigating the root cause. Back pain could be triggered by an acute injury, or years of poor posture and habits like a sedentary lifestyle, typing, texting, rigorous exercise, sports, dance, laborious work, inflammation due to poor diet, and stress or other emotional factors. The root chakra at the base of our spine governs security and feelings of acceptance and belonging. So financial or emotional insecurity, early childhood trauma, lack of support and social isolation can also play a role in back pain.
In Ayurveda, pain is usually rooted in an imbalance of vata dosha, the body humour that embodies the qualities of air and space— cold, rough, dry, light, mobile, and subtle. When the spaces in our body experience an increase in these qualities we become stiff, rigid, and dry, lacking the lubrication necessary to bend, stand and sit without pain. The discs between the vertebrae of our spines, which are made up of a jelly-like substance to protect the bones (think of this as kapha dosha providing lubrication and support), degenerate often due to repetitive action and overuse (the mobile quality of vata depletes kapha and is left to run awry unchecked). Because vata’s main seat in the body is the colon, where vata’s primary function is to move wastes down and out, when constipation happens the body cannot excrete its toxins and vata pushes them to other parts of the body. These toxins locate in weakened areas, such as in degenerating spinal discs. Therefore, constipation which is usually accompanied by gas and bloating can also be a root cause of back pain. So, in general a vata-pacifying diet and lifestyle, along with herbs, can significantly help to manage lower back pain.
DIET AND HERBS FOR BACK PAIN
If you’re experiencing back pain make sure to eat a warm, nourishing diet of easy to digest foods. Soups, curries and stews are a good place to start. Try to avoid cold or iced drinks, raw foods, and dry foods like chips, popcorn and crackers, as these can impair digestive function and result in constipation. Make sure you are getting enough fiber through significant intake of fruits and vegetables to help with healthy elimination. If you need more support try: Triphala Churnam for gentle cleansing and elimination, or Ashta Churnam for gas and bloating. Many other Ayurvedic herbs can help directly with back pain, including: Gandharavastadi Oil, Yogaraja Guggulu, Boswellia, Ginger and Turmeric.
From a more modern perspective, a non-inflammatory diet is recommended for any kind of pain, joint or other inflammatory condition. Nightshades, such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers, have been identified as a potential trigger due to a toxic alkaloid, a natural defense mechanism to protect the plant against insects. There is also increasing scientific evidence that meat, eggs and dairy play a major role in the body’s inflammatory processes, as well as a role in back pain. Transitioning to a whole-food plant-based diet has been shown effective in resolving many of the leading diseases of today. As always, avoiding processed, packaged, canned, and fast foods, as well as refined sugars are also important dietary considerations, as they are devoid of prana and nutrition. And the whole point of eating is to fuel our bodies…wouldn’t you choose high quality fuels and oils for a car that you knew needed to carry you through the rest of your life?
KATI BASTI BACK TREATMENT
One of Ayurveda’s most effective treatments for back pain is the Kati Basti. This treatment involves applying a dough ring around the affected area creating a dam-like structure to contain the warm herbal over the problem area. As the herbs are carried deep into the tissue layers they increase blood circulation and soften the rigid scar tissue that has formed on the muscles and joints. The warm and unctuous oil counters the cold and dry qualities of vata and back pain begins to resolve. While results are usually achieved after just one treatment, a series of six to eight treatments can usually go a long way to finally uprooting the pain. For at-home treatment, a regular self-massage with warm herbal oil that reduces pain and inflammation, like Dhanwantaram Thailam followed by a warm shower will also be effective.
YOGA FOR BACK PAIN
Keeping your body moving to increase blood flow and lubrication is essential for addressing back or any other musculoskeletal pain. Gentle yoga postures can be effective for back pain, like Cat Cow, Standing Forward Fold, and Plank.
This video: Say Goodbye to Aches and Pains by Doctor of Chiropractic and Ayurvedic Practitioner John Douillard explains how pain occurs in the body and offers excellent exercises and recommendations for addressing it, and specifically back pain. He also discusses the benefits of an integrated approach using various modalities like Ayurveda, massage, herbs, yoga, chiropractic and acupuncture. Even recent new guidelines published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by the American College of Physicians recommend using natural and alternative therapies, such as massage, acupuncture and yoga, rather than prescription medications for back pain. So before you become one of the millions of Americans to visit the doctor for back pain, first try Ayurveda, or combine it with chiropractic, acupuncture and yoga for an integrated approach!