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Whole-Body Cryotherapy for Back Pain

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says there is about an 80 percent chance that you have, have had, or will have back pain. Back pain “is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days. In a large survey, more than a quarter of adults reported experiencing low back pain during the past 3 months.” But I believe whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) may provide some hope for back pain sufferers.

Sources of Back Pain

The Institute says there are two broad causes of low back pain: mechanical and underlying condition. Mechanical includes conditions like strain, disc degeneration, injury, or nerve compression. Underlying conditions include osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, infection, tumor, and so forth. The risk factors for low back pain are age, lack of fitness, pregnancy, weight gain, genetics, occupation, mental health, and backpack overload (particularly for children).

In other words, low back pain has dozens (maybe hundreds) of possible causes. And it is likely to strike people in almost any walk of life. We shouldn’t be surprised that 80 percent of people experience back pain. What’s surprising is that 20 percent of people manage to elude it.

Treatments for Back Pain

When you suffer from back pain, there are a bewildering variety of treatments available. They include rest, physical therapy, strengthening exercises, medications, manipulation or mobilization, traction, acupuncture, biofeedback, nerve blocking, epidural steroid injections, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and surgery. I would suspect that the first one — rest — is the one that gets applied most often. When you wake up with back pain, it seems like your body is telling you to stay in bed. But I am going to suggest a different strategy. I suggest when you have low back pain that you use whole-body cryotherapy to reduce the pain enough for you to exercise. Exercise may provide the ultimate cure.

Cryotherapy is probably not going to eliminate your back pain. But if it provides you with enough pain relief that you can exercise, you may be able to manage it. The strong and flexible muscles you develop from regular exercise will likely support your spine and relieve the pain over the long term.

Whole-Body Cryotherapy for Back Pain

WebMD offers a slide show of low-impact exercises that can help with back pain. But exercise carefully and only after consulting your physician. Some exercises, even some that are prescribed for back pain, can actually make it worse. 

Not all back pain can be helped by exercise, so the cryotherapy strategy isn’t always useful. But if your back pain is due to muscle injury or strain, it’s likely to help. I know this because a 2017 review of the existing studies found that “WBC may improve recovery from muscle damage, with multiple exposures more consistently exhibiting improvements in recovery from pain, loss of muscle function, and markers of inflammation and damage.”

The clinical studies of WBC for pain relief invariably induce muscle damage (with specialized exercises) and then measure cryotherapy’s effectiveness in restoring the tissue to health. Muscle damage from exercise is usually on a microscopic scale and may not be as substantial as the injury that caused your back pain. But the principle is obviously the same. Nevertheless, the same paper noted “The diversity in muscle damage protocols, exposure timing with regards to exercise, as well as temperatures, duration and frequencies of exposure, make specific recommendations preliminary at present.”

My advice is to ask your doctor if WBC might provide some pain relief. And ask what exercises are likely to relieve the pain long term. Then book some WBC sessions timed so that you will be able to exercise after each one. You may find yourself on the path to a life without back pain.

Image: “Back Pain” by Bill McConkey. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)