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Suffering from Back Pain?

If you are experiencing pain in the lower back or hip that radiates down into the buttock and back of the leg, possibly even to your feet, you may have sciatica. A result of a pinched or inflamed sciatic nerve, sciatica can occur following an injury, muscular strain or herniated (“slipped”) vertebral disc that presses on the nerve.

Fortunately, sciatica usually goes away on its own within a few weeks - only 10 to 25 percent of all cases last more than six weeks and 80 to 90 percent of all people with sciatica recover without surgery. Simple measures such as applying hot and cold packs, stretching exercises and a short course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can help. Doctors may also prescribe a muscle relaxant or a stronger medication for pain lasting more than two to three months. If pain continues or worsens, an epidural steroid injection or even surgery may be recommended.

The best therapy for sciatica is prevention: maintain ideal body weight, engage in regular physical activity several times a week and avoid prolonged sitting as much as possible. If you are diagnosed with sciatica, Dr. Weil recommends these treatment options:

  1. Acupuncture: The National Institutes of Health recognizes acupuncture as an acceptable alternative to conventional therapies for low back pain.
  2. Bodywork: The Alexander Technique, Trager Approach and Feldenkrais Method can help overcome back pain.
  3. Therapeutic Yoga: Yoga can help relieve pain and protect against recurrences by strengthening your back. It also can balance nervous system function, promote flexibility and neutralize stress, all of which can help address the root cause or factors contributing to back pain.
  4. Osteopathic Manipulation: This system of manual treatment of the musculoskeletal system can be a highly effective treatment and usually requires only a few visits with a qualified practitioner.

Learn more about these treatments, as well as mind-body approaches, in the Wellness Therapies section on


Acupuncture Eases Menopause

Acupuncture can help ease menstrual pain, pregnancy-related back pain, and now, a small new study suggests, it can also reduce the severity of hot flashes. Of the 53 menopausal women who took part in the study, about half received acupuncture treatments twice a week for 10 weeks while the others received "sham" acupuncture (in which needles are placed randomly rather than traditional therapeutic locations). Results showed that in addition to easing the hot flashes, true acupuncture also elicited a beneficial effect on mood swings among the women treated. No such changes took place among those who received the sham acupuncture. Treatment didn’t affect vaginal dryness or the number of urinary tract infections among the women in the study, which was published in the March issue of the journal Acupuncture and Medicine. Elsewhere, mindfulness classes, including instruction on meditation and stretching, improved the quality of life among women experiencing severe hot flashes. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester randomly assigned 110 women either to attend mindfulness classes for eight weeks or to sign up on a waiting list for the classes. Afterwards, the women in the mindfulness classes reported being less bothered by their hot flashes, less stressed and anxious and better able to sleep. This study was published online on Feb. 26 by Menopause

My take? These two studies suggest reasonable alternatives to hormone replacement therapy for women suffering from severe menopausal symptoms. I often recommend black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) for the treatment of hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. While it works well for some women, it doesn't help everyone. My belief is that mental attitude has a lot to do with how well a woman adjusts to menopause. If it is seen as simply the natural transition to the next phase of life, it can be readily accepted and more easily handled. In addition, following an anti-inflammatory diet, getting adequate aerobic exercise, and practicing relaxation techniques can help address the many practical problems that menopause can bring.

More information at the Women's Health Center.


Is Laughter No Longer Fun?

Stress incontinence - urinary leakage that results from sudden pressure on the bladder by abdominal muscles - is often brought on by coughing, laughing, lifting or exercise. Many women experience stress incontinence, particularly after menopause, but it can also occur when pelvic muscles have been weakened by childbirth or abdominal surgery. There are a number of effective treatments:

  1. Kegel exercises: These exercises can strengthen the muscles that control urine flow. They involve squeezing the pelvic muscles (as if to stop the flow of urine), holding the tension for a count of 10, and relaxing for a count of 10. Repeat 20 times, three to four times a day.
  2. Biofeedback: This training teaches you to use signals from your body, and a visual or auditory cue, to help control symptoms.
  3. Electrical stimulation: Here, electrodes are used to stimulate and stabilize the urethral sphincter muscles that control urine flow.

More on stress incontinence.


Omega-3s May Slow Vision Loss

The omega-3 fatty acids in your diet may help protect against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in seniors. A new study found that women whose intake of omega-3s was highest were 38 percent less likely to develop AMD than were women whose omega-3 intake was lowest. The study was based on observation over 10 years of more than 38,000 women age 45 and older who had filled out detailed diet questionnaires. At the 10-year mark, 235 of the women had developed severe AMD. When the researchers looked at the women’s fish intake, they saw that those who consumed most were least likely to have AMD. At this point, the one thing that investigators can say for sure about prevention of this eye disease is that the only confirmed strategy is not smoking. However, the omega-3 study suggests a need for randomized clinical trials to see if these fatty acids really are protective. The study was published online March 14 in the Archives of Ophthalmology.


Super Foods: Salmon

Today's post is the third and final of the super food series.

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is one of my favorite foods. It is an excellent source of high-quality protein and essential omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s offer protection against:

  • Heart attack and stroke
  • Cancer
  • Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Mental and emotional problems

Wild salmon is available fresh, frozen and canned, making it a versatile choice; however, how you store and cook salmon can affect these essential nutrients. Avoid cooking methods such as deep-frying, blackening or sautéing at high temperatures.

According to the National Fisheries Institute, freezing fish and other seafood will cause minimal loss of the health-protective omega-3 fatty acids they contain. I suggest you preserve omega-3s in salmon by baking, broiling, poaching, steaming or grilling salmon just to the point of doneness that you prefer. Aim for two to six servings of salmon per week, and enjoy!

See the other two superfoods you should be eating: berries and dark, leafy greens.


Super Foods: Berries

If you are looking for a delicious way to add fiber and antioxidants to your diet, look no further than berries. Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are sweet, easy to pop into your mouth as a snack and a much healthier choice than a candy bar. All are anti-inflammatory, rich in flavonoids and carotenoids, offer immune-boosting antioxidant activity and:

  1. Are an excellent source of phytonutrients, and a good source of vitamin C and fiber.
  2. Provide folate, vitamins B2 and B3, magnesium and other essential nutrients.
  3. Contain ellagitannins, natural health-protective compounds that appear to have potent anti-cancer activity.
  4. Have a lower glycemic load than tropical fruits.

For a quick and simple nutritional boost, top your cereal with a wide range of colors of berries, add some to a smoothie or salad, use them in sauces and baked goods, or enjoy them on their own. As with other berries, because commercial strains may be heavily sprayed with pesticides, I recommend buying only organic varieties.

See yesterday's super food: dark, leafy greens.


Super Foods: Dark, Leafy Greens

Today's post is the first of a series of three super foods you should be eating.

Want to increase your intake of fiber, vitamins (including C, the provitamin beta-carotene and folic acid) and add calcium and magnesium to your diet? Then reach for the greens! Produce stand staples such as kale, collards, beet greens and bok choy are tasty, inexpensive sources of vital nutrients. In addition to containing antioxidants and fiber, they help reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol levels and protect the immune system.

Look for organic varieties of these three greens at your local grocer or natural foods store:

  • Kale. Try it sautéed in a bit of extra virgin olive oil with garlic, or try my Tuscan Kale Salad.
  • Collards. With a taste similar to that of kale and cabbage, this traditional vegetable from the South makes a wonderful side dish. For the best texture, consider sautéing in olive oil, then covering with water, bringing to a boil and briefly simmering.
  • Spinach. Spinach ranges in taste from mild to bitter, baby spinach being the least bitter. It can be used raw (be sure to wash raw spinach in cold water before using) as the base of a salad, or steamed or sautéed with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Keep in mind that fresh spinach reduces to about half its size when cooked.

If leafy greens aren't your thing, try increasing the amount of broccoli in your diet - this cruciferous vegetable provides abundant nutrients and has cancer-preventing properties.

Try this recipe for Curried Greens with any of the above - or any other of your favorite - leafy greens!


Coffee and Stroke Risk

If you’re female and can't start the day without a jolt of java, take heart, you may be lowering your risk of stroke. That’s what Swedish researchers found after following almost 35,000 women ages 49 to 83, for about 10 years. At the outset, they asked the women how much coffee they drank and then followed up over the years by checking hospital records to see how many of the women had strokes. After adjusting for such risk factors as smoking, weight, high blood pressure and diabetes, the investigators observed a 22 to 25 percent lower risk of stroke in the coffee drinkers compared to the women who drank less than a cup per day or none at all. While this doesn't prove that coffee itself lowers the risk of stroke, the Swedish researchers suggested that the antioxidants in coffee might be responsible for the lower stroke risk they found, or that coffee could be protective by reducing inflammation and improving insulin sensitivity. They added that more research remains to be done before advising women to change their coffee-drinking habits. The study was published online on March 10, 2011, by the American Heart Association journal Stroke.

If you do drink coffee, be sure to stay well hydrated, as it is a diuretic.