Back pain is a condition suffered by many. In fact, in a July 2019 survey, 39% of Americans ages 18 and older stated that they suffer from this debilitating issue. It’s clear that back pain is one of the most common types of pain that people experience, and we also know it tends to be a recurrent issue. (1)
Causes of Back Pain
Often it’s difficult to pinpoint the source of back pain. So most back pain tends to be categorized as “non-specific” or “mechanical”. Some general characteristics of this type of back pain are:
- The pain seems to get better or worse based on the body position, most of the time either when sitting or lying down.
- It may emerge suddenly or evolve gradually.
- The back pain can increase due to body movement. Paradoxically, keeping active with safe, slight, soft movements is often recommended as a treatment for back pain, as opposed to stopping moving altogether.
- It can be the result of poor posture or lifting a heavy object in an unsafe manner.
- Back pain can be associated with feelings of stress or exhaustion.
- It can result from a strain (pulled muscle) or a sprain (pulled ligament).
- It may get better in a few weeks.
Some sources of back pain can be medical conditions such as:
- Swollen spinal joints (ankylosing spondylitis) that can cause morning stiffness.
- Cartilage in the spine pushing on a nerve (slipped disc).
- When a bone in the spine slips out of position (spondylolisthesis), causing back pain, numbness, stiffness, and tingling sensations.
- Sciatica running from the low back to the feet.
- Spinal osteoarthritis, which can cause harm to the cartilage of joints in the lower back.
Conventional Back Pain Treatments
Some of the most recommended treatments for back pain are:
- Muscle relaxers, which reduce pain by acting on the central nervous system. These are especially helpful for muscle spasms that occur alongside back pain.
- Ointments and topical rubs can prove very helpful in easing back pain. They are often available in creams, lotions, sprays, gels, and patches which contain ingredients such as lidocaine and ibuprofen.
- Some physicians recommend Steroid injections in back pain cases that involve a nerve.
- Antidepressants may be recommended for severe back pain due to their ability to focus on different parts of the pain response. They tend to be more effective on nerve-related pain.
- Opioids operate directly on brain cells and the body to reduce pain. This type of pain medication is stronger, usually prescribed for intense pain. However, opioids can be highly addictive; therefore, precaution is recommended for their use.
- Surgery may be an option when medication and other less invasive methods prove ineffective. This last resort may help individuals experiencing:
- Compression of the nerves that can cause weakness in the muscles
- Spinal cord compression limiting everyday activities
- Severe constant pain related to structural abnormalities
- Medication treatment by NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) relieves most back pain. This medication is found OTC (over the counter) and contains ibuprofen and naproxen which offer anti-inflammatory properties. Regardless of its OTC status, it’s important to note that drugs like this should not exceed the recommended dose as they can cause severe side effects. (2)
Alternative Back Pain Treatments
Some experts also recommend some alternative approaches to alleviate back pain like:
- Physical therapy, designed to strengthen core muscles that support the back. The goal is to increase mobility, flexibility and improve posture.
- Chiropractic adjustments
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy uses relaxation and coping techniques aiming to manage back pain.
- Acupuncture has proven effective for many in treating back pain. This procedure requires inserting needles into critical points in the body. The needles can be stimulated by twisting or using a low-voltage electrical current. This method can help the body release endorphins, serotonin, and acetylcholine, which are nature’s pain killers.
- TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) generates electrical impulses on the skin, specifically targeting the areas experiencing pain, to block or change the perception of pain. It uses a wearable battery device with electrodes. (3)
Fish Oil for Back Pain
In the attempt to find a natural alternative to ease back pain without using NSAID medication which can have serious side effects such as internal bleeding, gastric ulcers, myocardial infarction, and in the most severe cases, death. To that end, researchers have begun looking closely at the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil to alleviate back pain, thanks to its natural anti-inflammatory agent.
Omega-3 fatty acids belong to the category of polyunsaturated fats that have a vital role in our body and brain health. The body can not produce omega-3 fatty acids on its own. Fish oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, readily available in the skin and fat of oily fish like tuna, anchovies, herring, and mackerel. In some cases, oil is extracted from fish’s liver, like in the case of cod liver fish oil.
Fish Oil for Back Pain Study
One study analyzing the efficacy of fish oil as a viable treatment for back pain was conducted from March to June 2004. The research team invited 250 patients who experience nonsurgical neck or back pain to be part of the study. The participants were asked to ingest a daily dose of 1200 mg of a fish oil supplement containing omega-3 EFAs (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid).
The researchers sent a questionnaire after a month of fish oil supplement intake. A total of 125 patients returned the survey after 75 days of taking the fish oil supplement. Those surveys collected the following information:
- 78% of participants were consuming a daily 1.2 grams dose of omega-3 EFAs, and the remaining patients had increased the daily amount to 2.4 grams
- 59%had stopped taking NSAIDs to ease their pain
- 60% of the total number of patients said that their overall pain had improved
- 60% of participants reported a reduction in joint pain
- 80% noted a sense of satisfaction with the improvement
- 88% of patients said that they would continue using fish oil supplements as part of their diets
The research team concluded that the use of omega-3 EFA fish oil supplements for this study group presents a less risky alternative to NSAIDs for treating nonsurgical back or neck pain. (4)
Is fish oil the right solution for your back pain? If there is any question, always check with a medical professional before adding a dietary supplement to your routine.