Low-back pain is common, interferes with quality of life and can sometimes be disabling. It has many causes, including degeneration of the discs (pads between vertebrae) and degenerative arthritis of the facet joints that hold vertebrae together.

There are no great cures for chronic low-back pain, and you should be cautious about undergoing surgery (except in the case of a large disc bulge pressing on nerves and causing leg weakness). “Failed low back” is a term that applies to people who have spine surgery, fail to improve, end up with one or more additional operations that only make things worse.

In the last few years, it has been determined that what people eat can contribute to low-back pain. The tenth annual International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference was held in Palm Desert, California, earlier this month, and three meals a day were included. At breakfast one day (steel cut oats, ground flaxseeds, cinnamon, walnuts, berries, turmeric, soy milk, green tea), I happened to sit next to an orthopedist from the Mayo Clinic, and I told him I was surprised that an orthopedist would attend a  plant-based nutrition conference.

He told me that he spends a lot of his time trying to convince back-pain patients to improve their diet rather than undergo surgery. He pointed out that doctors at the Mayo Clinic are salaried, so they have no financial incentive to recommend surgery (Most doctors in the U.S. work on a fee-for-service basis). He said there is a strong link between back pain and atherosclerosis (cholesterol plaque) of the aorta — the large blood vessel that brings blood, oxygen and nutrients from the heart to the lower body, including the spine.

Smaller arteries branch off the aorta and nourish the discs and the vertebrae. Imaging studies of low-back-pain patients often show cholesterol plaque partially- or totally-blocking blood flow in these small arteries, causing or at least contributing to disk and spinal joint degeneration. Similar blockages can also occur in the small arteries that nourish the nerves in the spine.

Based on work by Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Esselstyn and others, we know that atherosclerosis can be reversed with a plant-based, whole-food diet with no salt, sugar or added oil. This diet stabilizes and can reverse heart disease and conditions such as erectile dysfunction (caused by blockages in the small penile arteries).

There are three additional ways that a healthy diet can prevent and reverse back pain: 

1. If a person is say 50 pounds overweight, it’s like a normal-weight person carrying around a 50 pound backpack all day, which would result in back (and knee) pain in most people. A plant-based, whole food diet is the most effective one for attaining and maintaining ideal body weight.

2. Pain is caused by inflammation, and, while an animal-based diet causes inflammation, a plant-based diet is anti-inflammatory.

3. Core strength stabilizes the spine, and people who are sedentary lose core strength as they age, resulting in a higher incidence of back pain.

In conclusion, low-back pain is one more reason to eat a healthy diet — and to stay physically active.

Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with special interest in disease prevention and reversal through nutrition. Free services through Center For Prevention and The People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shop-with-a-doc at Carbondale City Market and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for appointment, or email [email protected].

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