As the gift-giving season ramps up, maybe you’ve got a special someone on your list who could benefit from a gift that caters to their physical wellbeing. While you may not be able to gift better health to a friend or family member, for someone who suffers from acute or chronic back or neck pain a thoughtful something that might help bring relief would probably put you high on the “Nice” list.
There are a lot of products on the market that claim to relieve back or neck pain, from inversion tables and back stretchers to massage belts and heat wraps. Even magnets and shoe inserts. So how do you know what really works and what not to spend your money on? We asked Craig Cunningham, DPT, physical therapy manager at Spine Team Texas in Rockwall, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, to shed some light on the pros and cons of popular pain relief devices for the spine.
“The number of options can be overwhelming,” Cunningham admits. “They may work in different ways, but they all share the common goal of easing spinal discomfort. Although some products may do more harm than good. It’s important to know the symptoms that need to be targeted to find the appropriate device for you or a loved one.”
Cunningham also points out that clinical research on the health benefits of certain pain relief options, including inversion tables, back stretchers and massage belts, is lacking. Here’s what we know about these and other popular products.
Inversion Tables and Back Stretchers
Stretching as a general rule of thumb can improve back pain when done properly and as part of a comprehensive stretching routine. Cunningham says a back stretcher is most effective for people who have mild muscle tension or tightness in their backs and when used under the right supervision with correct positioning.
“There are also some very practical and effective stretches that can be done throughout the day to manage neck and low back pain without the need for any equipment” Cunningham says. “Many people spend so much time sitting at a computer to work or looking down at a cell phone, or they have a physically demanding job requiring repetitive bending/lifting/twisting. These daily sustained postures or repetitive movements put increased strain and stress on the bac and neck. To help counteract the stress of everyday living, simple repeated standing back extensions or repeated cervical retractions can be really effective in managing the pain.”
The practice of doing short stretches upside down or at an angle on an inversion table is another way to try to decompress the spine and take pressure off the nerves. It may provide short-term pain relief but some experts say it isn’t a slam-dunk for the back.
Precautions: Hanging upside down can increase blood pressure, so it’s not for anyone who’s pregnant, has high blood pressure, heart disease or eye disease such as glaucoma. Tilting backward can also make acid reflux symptoms worse.
Heat wraps and heating pads can be effective in treating muscle pain or soreness. When applied to the skin, heat promotes blood flow. This may aid with healing and relaxation.
“Although heat wraps and heating pads feel good, I recommend cold therapy as well,” Cunningham adds. “Cold packs can help address inflammation and general soreness to be effective in managing pain, especially during the first 72 hours after an injury or onset of pain.”
Precautions: Heat should not be applied to broken skin. Individuals with diabetes, blood vessel problems or multiple sclerosis (MS) should check with a health care provider before using a heat treatment.
Back Brace/Belt and Lumbar Rolls
A lumbosacral (or back) brace is intended to provide support, lessen pain and prevent further damage if an injury is involved. When used correctly, a back brace can increase function during daily activity.
“Back braces or belts address a range of different conditions, from muscle strains to post-surgical healing, and come in different compositions, sizes and types,” Cunningham says. “Some back support belts have heating elements or massaging capabilities that can help to relieve back pain and promote better posture.”
Cunningham notes that while research into the long-term effectiveness of back braces and belts has been inconclusive, one trial looked at the use of elastic belts as a treatment option for acute back pain. Results showed a reduced need for pain medication and improved functioning.
When it comes to lumbar support, Cunningham also notes that when used correctly a lumbar roll can be a useful tool for improving posture by supporting the natural curvature of the spine and supporting the gap between the lumbar spine and the backrest of a chair or car seat. “Without lumbar support, the body over time will form into a slouching position contributing to back, neck and shoulder pain,” he says.
Precautions: Back braces, belts and rolls are safe for most people to use but if you or your gift recipient have had a recent back injury such as a herniated disc, it’s best to speak with a medical professional before use. An improperly fitting brace or belt can cause irritation or rash where it rubs on the skin.
Magnets used for health purposes work by creating a pulsating electric current that passes through a wire coil containing magnetic material. Thus, the name electromagnetic therapy. A 2020 review of numerous studies that focused on electromagnetic therapy for musculoskeletal pain conditions reported that electromagnetic therapy reduced pain and improved function in people with different musculoskeletal concerns, including chronic mechanical neck pain and low-back pain.
Precautions: Some magnets may interfere with medical devices, such as pacemakers and insulin pumps, and should be removed before having an MRI or other imaging procedure. Talk with a health care provider before using magnetics if pregnant or suffering from a health condition.
Shoe insoles made of gel or other materials may be put in shoes to provide cushioning and added support.
Evidence supports the idea that improper foot alignment — such as foot overpronation, when the ankle turns inward and the foot turns outward — is associated with mechanical lower back pain. Growing evidence also supports the use of foot insoles and orthotics for the management of lower back pain. The specific mechanism by which foot insoles help with back pain relief remains unclear; however, the insoles’ properties of shock absorption, cushioning and mechanical support seem to account for their therapeutic effects.
Where Should You Spend Your $$$?
Money and space are additional considerations when giving a gift to promote back health. Inversion tables can be pricing and bulky. Other pain relief options such as magnets and massage belts have a range of price points.
“In combination with other therapies such as over-the-counter pain medications, physical therapy, yoga and core-strengthening exercises, each product discussed may contribute to an effective individualized pain management strategy,” Cunningham says. “Some products will work better for certain people, so there may be some trial and error involved. When in doubt, it’s best to consult your physician or physical therapist.”
When to See a Spine Specialist
If pain in the neck, mid back or low back lasts for a period of a few weeks or more without much improvement, it may be time to be evaluated by a spine specialist. “An accurate diagnosis and mechanical assessment are the best way to get an effective treatment plan going for back or neck pain,” Cunningham adds. “A spine specialist has the training to properly evaluate and treat spine issues that can lead to a healthier back and improved quality of life.”
Ready to schedule an appointment? Find a back and spine specialist on the medical staff near you.
Spine Team Texas providers employed by Texas Health Back Care practice independently and are not employees or agents of the hospital or Texas Health Physicians Group.