44 Diet and Back Pain
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Dynamic Chiropractic – February 22, 1999, Vol. 17, Issue 05

Diet and Back Pain

By G. Douglas Andersen, DC, DACBSP, CCN
Last fall, I was in a bookstore looking for Christmas gifts when I came upon Foods That Fight Pain by Neil Barnard, MD.1 Dr. Barnard became interested in nutrition during his medical residency. During that time, he realized that he and his colleagues did little to prevent the illnesses and disorders they treated. In 1985, he founded the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that advocates preventive medicine, nutrition and responsible use of pharmacologics.

I picked up Dr. Barnard's book, figuring it was probably a rehash of many other books, and in some ways it is. However, what caught my eye was the first chapter, "Oh, My Aching Back," where Dr. Barnard discusses a theory of how diet may relate to back pain. It is as follows:

The abdominal aorta is commonly the first artery in the body to develop artherosclerotic plaques. From the aorta, branch vessels supply the lumbar spine. Dr. Barnard quotes a Finnish autopsy study where researchers matched many findings unrelated to the cause of death with the decedents' medical histories. An unexpected finding was that people who had a history of lower back pain had, on average, two arteries to the lumbar spine completely occluded and at least a third artery considerably narrowed. People who did not have a history of back pain had fewer arterial blockages. The researchers also found that the cadavers with the highest percent of arterial blockage to the lumbar spine also had the highest rates of degenerative joint disease.

Dr. Barnard feels that if arterial blockages of blood flow to the heart can lead to heart disease, and arterial blockages of blood flow to the brain can lead to stroke, then arterial blockages to intervertebral discs could lead to degenerative arthritis by starving those structures of oxygen and nutrients.

Dr. Barnard's recommendation for back pain sufferers includes a medical evaluation to rule out pathology; a second opinion if surgery is prescribed; moderate use of sodium and caffeine; and regular exercise and stress reduction. Dr. Barnard also recommends that people with back pain try chiropractic; avoid the use of prescription narcotics; and use over-the-counter medication in moderation. Finally, Dr. Barnard implements an artery-opening diet, which is the same strict diet used for patients with heart disease: low fat and zero cholesterol. The foods Dr. Barnard allows are whole grains, including cereals, pasta, rice, bread and oats; legumes of all kinds, including peas, chickpeas and lentils; vegetables; and fruits. Dr. Barnard advocates the avoidance of all animal products including beef, poultry, lamb, pork, fish, eggs and all dairy. He also recommends using vegetable oils sparingly and supplementing the diet with a strong multivitamin-multimineral.

Strict low-fat, vegetarian diets are not easy for those patients whose motivation is questionable. Furthermore, research in recent years has emphasized the importance of fats in our diet, and that consuming a diet with only 10 percent fat should be reserved as a form of therapeutic intervention for people with health problems such as heart disease.

With the exception of the finished study, I am not aware of related research in this area. I am hopeful that Dr. Barnard's theory can soon be studied in a neutral academic environment. From the work of Pritikin and Ornish, we know that the right foods can reverse heart disease. Could the right foods also halt or even reverse spinal disorders? I hope we will have more information in this area in the near future.


  1. Barnard N. Foods That Fight Pain. New York: Harmony Books, 1998.

Click here for previous articles by G. Douglas Andersen, DC, DACBSP, CCN.

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