A major study on the use of alternative therapies found that almost 60% of people who consulted a medical doctor for back pain had tried some sort of alternative therapy. When contemplating one of these options, it is important to remember that the treatments are considered alternative precisely because there is not enough scientific evidence to prove that they work consistently. Be particularly cautious about undertaking any treatments that are expensive and require more than half a dozen visits.

Back Massage - MasterfileBe sure to tell your doctor if you are using any type of alternative therapy. Commonly used alternative methods for relieving back pain include acupuncture, acupressure, massage, relaxation therapy, yoga, biofeedback, and spinal manipulation.

Acupuncture for Back Pain Relief

This treatment is based on the traditional Chinese medical theory that pain and disease occur when the body’s natural energies (chi) are out of balance. The Chinese believe that chi is conducted through the body along pathways called meridians, which intersect at specific points in the body. Stimulating these points through acupuncture needles is meant to correct the improper flow of chi, thereby relieving the problem.

Acupuncture is one of the few alternative therapies that are commonly covered by many insurance companies. Check with your insurer to be sure it covers this therapy.

The needles used in acupuncture are as thin as a hair. In general, 10 to 15 needles are inserted into the back to treat pain. Sometimes they are stimulated with electricity or heat or are turned after insertion.

Acupuncture may relieve pain by triggering nerves to send out natural, pain-blocking chemicals (endorphins) within the body.

A recent analysis of 33 studies of acupuncture for back pain found that acupuncture effectively relieves chronic low back pain. But the researchers noted that there’s no evidence that acupuncture is more effective than other therapies. To find a reputable practitioner, contact acupuncture organizations.

Acupressure for Back Pain Relief

This therapy is similar to acupuncture in that it is based on the same theory of energy channels in the body. Continuous pressure is exerted on a trigger spot for three to five minutes to stimulate the flow of healing energy. This pressure may temporarily alleviate the pain, but it usually returns.

Back Massage Therapy

Besides relaxing muscles and easing tension in the back, massage is believed to temporarily overpower pain signals going to the brain. Massage therapy should only be performed by a trained, licensed massage therapist.

Relaxation Therapy for the Back

High levels of stress not only adversely affect overall health, but can also contribute to back pain. Relaxation therapy teaches muscle relaxation and breathing techniques for coping with the stress of everyday life.

Another relaxation technique is meditation, which is designed to calm the mind as well as the body. Researchers have theorized that the metabolic response to meditation—the opposite of the response to stress—may counter the negative effects of stress.


Using electronic sensors, biofeedback measures a person’s automatic, stress-responsive body functions—such as breathing patterns, pulse rate, and muscle tension—while the person practices different relaxation methods. Data from the sensors can show which relaxation techniques are most effective for that individual. Biofeedback can also help train a person to regulate his or her body functions consciously, reducing the impact of stress on the body.

Yoga for Back Pain Relief

Mounting evidence suggests that yoga can relieve chronic back pain in a select group of people. There are many schools or types of yoga. For advice on determining if you are a candidate and which type might appropriate, see “

Yoga for Low Back Pain

Spinal Manipulation

For treatment of back pain lasting less than a month, spinal manipulation can be a good choice, provided there is no evidence of a spinal nerve root disorder (such as a herniated disk or spinal stenosis) or fracture. If symptoms do not improve after four weeks, however, use of spinal manipulation should be re-evaluated.

A chiropractor, osteopath, or physical therapist may provide spinal manipulation, adjusting the vertebrae to reduce pain caused by poor alignment. The healthcare professional must be sure that back pain is not due to bone or joint disorders, since manipulating a spine that has been damaged by osteoporosis, for example, could result in further, more serious injury. X-rays of the area are usually taken before spinal manipulation to rule out vertebral fractures.

In properly screened people, spinal manipulation by a trained professional appears to be safe. Some people may experience discomfort, headache, or tiredness after treatment, but these effects are usually only temporary. Serious complications of lower-spine manipulation, such as paralysis and death, are rare. Complications, when they do occur, are more common with manipulations of the neck.

Publication Review By: Lee H. Riley III, M.D. and Suzanne M. Jan de Beur, M.D.

Published: 03 Aug 2011

Last Modified: 03 May 2012