Back Problems

People don't immediately associate their back problems with a herbalist but, if used wisely, a holistic approach that includes herbal medicines can be exceptionally helpful for back pain. The following article goes into some detail on the strategies have consistently been found to be most helpful.

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Finding a good herbalist

Most of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

Herbal Treatments

There are of course a great many other potential treatments in the herbal world. If you realise that herbs have been humankind's only real medicine for virtually our entire evolution then it is no surprise that we have found many powerful allies in the natural world to help us with back-pain; also something that has been with us at one point or another since our collective journey began!

Whilst there are many potential allies in the herbal kingdom I have begun this article with a detailed description of just one herb; Chamomile, because it is so easily available for anyone to try at home.


Chamomile must be used in a certain way to harness its true power but I think that a person who was ready to try the following suggestions over at least a few days will be at the very least pleasantly surprised at just what a difference this humble and inexpensive herb can make to how their back feels.

Chamomile Infusion internally

~ Ingredients
~ Chamomile flowers 15 grams*
~ Boiled water 400-600mls (use the larger amount if you are making this for a compress as well)
~ A Vessel that may be fully covered e.g. a saucepan, a jar, or a coffee-plunger

* 15grams is approx half an ounce or about 14-16 heaped tsps! I don't want to even imagine how many tea-bags you would need to reach this strength. You need to get the chamomile in bulk from a herbalist or herb store but it shouldn't be at all expensive even if you get enough for a few treatments.

~ Recipe
Pour the freshly boiled water over the Chamomile then quickly cover the vessel with a lid and then a towel. If you already know that you are going to really struggle with the fact that this tea is going to taste very bitter then tonsider stirring in plenty of honey before you cover the vessel.

Now leave the covered jar or pot until fully cooled, which will take several hours, then strain the tea using any kind of sieve or muslin cloth and it is ready to go.

Note that plenty of the therapeutic tea will still be held in the soaked flowers so if you don't mind getting a little messy you can easily squeeze a lot more of it out by hand.

You will notice some oils in the texture of the tea, these are volatile essential oils that contain much of the active ingredients of the chamomile. They initially turn into steam, which is why you must cover the vessel, but then they condense back into the liquid where they can now be rapidly absorbed into your blood stream when you drink them or place them on your skin.

The medicine you have now made will be at full-strength freshness for a good 24 hours.

~ Internal Dose
This strong Chamomile infusion will have a very intense flavour but it is drinkable and will get much easier to take with practice. If you prefer drink the tea whilst it is cool then that's completely fine but if for any reason you prefer to have it warmer then don't reheat the tea but just add a some hot water before drinking.

Divide the doses of the tea into several times a day so you spread the whole medicine out over at least 2, 3 or even 4 doses in a day. Dividing the dose ensures we get the potent anti-inflammatory chemicals within Chamomile reaching optimal levels in the body.

Chamomile will not sedate and suppress messages being sent and received by your nervous system as pain killing drugs do, rather it works within the process of inflammation itself with a potent, natural, anti-inflammatory action. Don't expect it to work straight away but rather take it over at least one day and see if you don't notice a significant reduction in pain and stiffness.

Many people report that they have found this simple herb to have stronger effects than various potent pain-killing drugs that they have taken in the past. I suggest you keep an open mind and try it for yourself! You can read more about Chamomile, including some snippets from the scientific research that convey some sense of its therapeutic potency here.

Chamomile compress externally

If you have made extra of the strong Chamomile infusion for the compress then take the additional liquid and put it in a bowl. To prepare the compress simply soak a flannel or some other kind of cloth in the Chamomile infusion then lightly squeeze the cloth until it is ‘wringing wet’ (meaning that if you squeezed it you would easily get a lot more liquid out but it will only slowly drip if you just hold it up) you then apply this soaked cloth to your back as either a cool or hot compress as described below.

~ Cool compresses.
Place the strong Chamomile tea that you are going to use for the compress in the refrigerator and make the compress with a cloth as described above when the liquid is quite cold, you could also add some ice-cubes if you want to take it to the next level!

The cool compress is placed over the affected area of the back until your body heat brings the compress back to normal temperature -- in this process much heat and inflammation may be drawn out.

A person with an especially acute, painful back should re-apply the cool compress with a fresh piece of cloth after the first one has drawn out the heat and warmed to your body temperature. Repeat the treatment as often as required, you cannot overdo it.

~ Hot compresses
Use the strong chamomile tea at room temperature, i.e. do not reheat it and do not refrigerate it. Make the compress as described and once the room-temperature wet compress is over the part of your back that needs it you then place over a layer of plastic cling wrap to keep things clean and then something on top of that to 'heat' the compress. This could be a heated wheat or rice bag, a hot water bottle or any other item that will sustain a persistent heat for at least 10 minutes. Get it as hot as you can comfortably tolerate. Once you have the heat source sitting over the Chamomile compress put one or two thick towels or a blanket over the whole lot to help retain the heat and moisture.

~ Which one?
You may just have to try for yourself to see whether a hot or cool compress works better for you. In general, a cool compress is especially helpful for a ‘hot’ painful condition that you want to rapidly alleviate whilst a hot compress can be most effective for deep and chronic pain, for example for conditions such as sciatica or arthritis.

In an older time, when nursing was a hands-on process and not so much about just giving out drugs, such compresses would be an integral part of a normal treatment program and they would often alternate between both cool and hot, ususally starting cool and finishing hot...


The Chamomile will not cause toxicity at any dose and repeated use will not cause your body to become less sensitive to its effects. If this treatment helps then do it as often as you like. If I was recommending these Chamomile infusions and/or compresses to a patient that I was treating I would first check that it worked well for them and then, so long as it was clearly helping, I would recommend that they took the herb (and compress if needed) on alternate days or about 3 times a week.

Matricaria recutita (Chamomile)


Movement & Exercise

Fact 1: Not moving a bad back makes it worse in the long run
Fact 2: Moving a bad back too much makes it worse in the long run

Those are facts; if you have had a bad back for a while you have probably already proved both of them to be true more than once or twice already. So, you definitely have to move your back to get better, but how much?

As much as thousands of YouTube clips and wishfully written endorsements might testify otherwise, there is no magic formula of the right exercise to cure back pain that works for everyone.

Too much of anything can be harmful instead of helpful and it is especially noticeable that following a rigid exercise program leads to many people ending up injuring themselves further or is how they got a bad back in the first place!

What I'm about to say looks simple written down but takes a lot of wisdom to practice because, whilst you have to be open to trying things out to see if they help, above all you must listen to your body.

The way to not do harm when you exercise is
1) Don't start with an expectation of what you 'should' do. Just drop all that and go with the flow
2) Keep your attention focused within. Don't tune out with some form of mental distraction. Let your body be your guide and stay with how you feel.

If you practice this you will find that your body reliably tells you when you are doing a movement wrong or when you are doing something that will bring you harm. This approach will likely mean you do less rather than more. Don't worry about that, you will actually get better much faster with a slow, gentle approach than you will by impatiently pushing yourself forwards. Be patient and be gentle.


Massage & Manipulation

Using some kind of regular exercise as talked about above should be considered vital to getting well. If you can also find and afford a good 'hands-on' therapist to help you; then do it!

Again, the only way to know for sure how much this could help is to try and see for yourself. If you don't know an excellent 'hands-on' practitioner then don't let that stop you; there are many gifted people all over the world and you just have to find the right one for you. Much of the advice written earlier about how to find a good herbalist equally applies to this area - the link for that again is here.

Even further to seeing a professional is the value of getting some regular rubs at home. Wherever possible I encourage my own patients to get massages from their loved ones...

As always it is your own body that will tell you if something is helping you or not. It is okay to feel a little sore the day after strong massage or any kind of manipulation but you should soon start to feel that everything is getting better overall to know that you are on the right track.

I personally would not keep treating a patient who was not obviously at least starting to get better within three visits. At the very least I would want to stop and consider what other options might be better. I don't see why other practitioners should be different, we are only here to help people get well, not to make repeat bookings for our business...


Drug therapies

Most people with bad backs take pain killers or anti-inflammatory drugs, at least at some point in the process. Yes, these powerful chemicals can have side-effects and I suppose everyone knows that taking drugs isn't exactly good for you, but I see the biggest danger happening when the drugs work well enough that people just keep taking them day after day and don't realise how much they are still hurting their backs through some pattern of movement or posture.

Some people get a bad back for just a short time through an isolated injury but most people who get a chronic bad back have a long history of niggles and warning signs that show that, even if a particular event might have set it off, the reality is that the problem had been building for some time. In those cases, taking drugs when things get bad but otherwise just carrying on as usual will likely be a recipe for disaster in the long term.

Our backs are capable of giving us so much grief because they carry the spinal nerves -- which means we get to feel everything that is going on! Of course that can be overwhelming when pain and spasm are happening, hence the universal recommendation to take drugs to reduce these intense sensations, but this feedback mechanism is also an essential guide for how to get better.

The main point in the section on movement and exercise above underlines how vital it is to be able to monitor what is going on. Some movement is essential to getting well but it can equally do harm if overdone. You have to be able to feel what is going on to know when you need to move, and when you need to stop.

I think that most people with chronic back pain eventually end up working these things out for themselves; at least the majority of the people that I work with have come to the same conclusions if they have had a bad back for a while. Drugs may be very necessary in the beginning or in the short term but they end up hampering rather than helping the healing process after a while.

I suppose this may read like I am 'anti-drug' because I'm a herbalist. The honest truth is I'm not and that I think everything has its time and place. But I can't lie about what I see either because in the long run I see that using drugs for bad backs day after day seems to hinder rather than help healing. Nearly anyone with a bad back can eventually get better, but many don't, and I think this one issue is the number one reason why.

Remember, it is not the drugs that heal a bad back, or the exercise, herbs or massage for that matter; it is the natural healing intelligence inside all living things. Understanding what supports that intelligence, and knowing what can hinder it, is the key to getting well.


Body & Mind

I approach this last subject with some caution because I have long lost count of the number of people I have met who have chronic pain (often in their spine) who have eventually been told by some idiot of a doctor or specialist that their problems are 'all in their head'. I 100% share my patient's feelings that they wish such people could live for a day in their body, or even just for a minute, because then they would surely sing a different tune...

That said it has to be acknowledged that we are neither a body or a mind, we are both. Everything you feel in your body you experience in your brain; at some level. Everything that happens to you mentally and emotionally you likewise experience in your body; at some level.

It is just as foolish to say that something that affects us is purely physical as it is to say it is purely psychological, the truth is that it is always both. This is very important to grasp because even in the most blatantly obviously physical back problems you simply cannot have zero emotional involvement with what is going on, if it hurts then you are being affected emotionally -- and being affected emotionally invariably makes the pain feel worse. In other words it doesn't matter which came first; the chicken or the egg...

I want you who are reading this, assuming you have a bad back, to understand that the reason I talk about this is to urge you not pick a side for or against your mind or body but rather to take great care to nourish and heal both. That may mean that as well as things like movement, massage and herbs, that you take steps to look after your mental health as well. Do things that relax you, that make you happy, avoid things that stress you, or make you worried or sad.

There is a section in my website that has an exercise called 'relaxation with pain'. In a nutshell it talks about how to relax into the pain rather than fighting against it. Whilst that probably seems like a weird idea - I warmly suggest you don't knock it till you try it! You can find it here. I also have a detailed article on the strategies that work most consistently and reliably to help people in bad states of anxiety and tension; that one is here.

Constitutional health notes

We are not all cut from the same cloth and a large part of the reason why one approach works great for one person but not so well for another is that we differ in some fundamental qualities... In regards to which is the best herb for you it may be very helpful to learn which constitution you are.

There are four types of people in the world and working out which one you are is an old and incredibly useful way to understand ourselves and our differences. The ancient Greeks thought and wrote about these matters thousands of years ago and I write about it in my own way starting with an introduction here, along with a page on how to work out which constitution you are here.

The following will make a lot more sense if you have read those pages just linked above but to give you some examples of how this constitutional knowledge can help if you are an:

Eagle: it is likely you may suffer from very specific areas of impinged nerves in their spines or necks. I have met a lot of people from this constitution who get weird 'neurological' symptoms from having a bad back and found that the certain herbs to have great benefit if used wisely e.g. remedies such as St John's wort, Feverfew and Arnica.

Tiger: it is likely that you will get intensely hot back pain that quickly radiates into surrounding areas giving referred pain and causing loss of function. 'Heat' and 'damp' clearing herbs such as Willow bark (the origin of aspirin), Celery seed or Wormwood may help you best.

Bear: It is likely you will be prone to chronic back or neck pain of a deep, dull, aching nature. Bears are particularly poorly served by drugs in the long term and need a holistic approach to get properly well. Cleansing, stimulating, warming herbs such as Devil's Claw, Turmeric and Ginger may give the best help to a Bear with chronic pain

Elephant/Butterfly: if you have a bad back then you may well have had an injury that has not healed well. Especially helpful herbs for you include remedies such as Black Cohosh, Cinnamon and Cramp Bark.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd