News Roundup: Toxic Lead in Herbal Remedies, Posture Eases Back Pain, and More

A little toxic metal with your natural medicineA new study suggests that one in five Ayurvedic medicines manufactured in the United States or India and bought online is contaminated with lead, mercury, or arsenic. In a Journal of the American Medical Association study, researchers bought 193 capsules, tablets, and other remedies online (115 manufactured in the U.S. and 77 in India), and found that 20.7% contained potentially harmful levels of toxic metals.

It’s not just Ayurvedic medicine (Ayurveda is a form of traditional medicine that originated in India 2,000 years ago). Supplements and herbal remedies are not regulated by the government, and other products have been found to contain steroids, toxins, or too much or too little of the expected ingredients. Congress should “revisit the way dietary supplements are regulated in the U.S.,” said lead author Robert Saper, MD, of the Boston University School of Medicine, in a statement.

Good posture may ease bad backsA decades-old method that emphasizes good posture and body movement, known as the Alexander technique, may relieve chronic back pain, according to a study in the British Medical Journal. U.K. researchers looked at 463 back-pain patients who received one of four treatments: painkillers and exercise, massages, 6 classes teaching the Alexander technique, or 24 classes teaching the technique. At the end of the yearlong trial, researchers tallied the number of days that patients had been in pain in the previous four weeks: Alexander patients with 24 classes had 3 days of pain, Alexander patients with 6 classes had 11 days of pain, massage patients had 14 days of pain, and those in the painkiller-and-exercise group had 21 days of pain, according to a BBC report. Developed by a Shakespearean actor to combat chronic hoarseness, the technique has also been used by actors and musicians to “enhance performance and stage presence,” according to the American Society for the Alexander Technique. (Find out more about back pain and how to treat it.)

Have childhood pet, will snore Although it’s usually adults who snore when they sleep, a new study suggests that the groundwork for the nighttime gasps, roars, and snorts may be laid in the cradle. The presence of a dog early on is among childhood factors associated with snoring in adulthood, according to a report in Respiratory Research. The findings are from a survey of more than 15,000 adult men and women in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Estonia. But is it fair to blame the family pooch for current nighttime sounds? It’s not conclusive. (Sometimes pets are good for your health.) But the researchers speculate that certain airborne agents often found in homes with dogs may cause enlarged tonsils, which could alter the upper airways in a snore-inducing way. (Find out more about snoring, and what to do about it.)

“Cold-busting” Airborne forced to give money backAlthough once touted as a “miracle cold buster,” the dietary supplement Airborne was just plain busted when the FTC issued a statement that said “there was no credible evidence” that the product protects against colds. That means that if you bought one of seven Airborne products between May 2001 and November 2007, you can get your money back for up to six purchases, according to The Wall Street Journal‘s health blog. (The deadline is September 15, 2008.) The company that makes the products has agreed to pay $30 million—$23.5 million to settle a previous class-action suit and up to $6.5 million more to reimburse consumers—after the government said it didn’t have evidence to back up its ads. “It’s important to note that this is a settlement over older advertising and labeling and has nothing to do with public safety,” said Airborne CEO Elise Donahue in a statement.

Rubber hand fakes out the brain—againIt’s long been known (by those who study such things) that if a person’s hand is hidden from view, and a rubber hand is positioned where the real hand was, the person will “feel” a stroke given to the rubber hand. It’s called the rubber hand illusion, and it’s weird. Now it gets even weirder. For the first time, researchers have discovered that stroking the rubber hand causes a temperature drop in a person’s real hidden hand. What’s more, there’s a reduction in sensation from the real hand, even if something is touching it—suggesting the brain slows the information processing from the real limb. The researchers from Oxford University and elsewhere published the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and say the results have implications for schizophrenia, neuropathic pain, autism, epilepsy, and anorexia nervosa—all conditions in which the sense of body ownership can be disrupted.


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Bad Back? Ozone Shots a Possible Therapy


By Theresa TamkinsFRIDAY, March 13, 2009 ( — Ozone is considered pollution on ground level and an environmental protector when it’s in the earth’s atmosphere (that’s why a hole in the ozone is a bad thing).

Now it seems the molecule is a bit of a health paradox, too. A large new study released this week found that breathing in ozone-laden smog increases the risk of dying of respiratory diseases. But a second group of researchers also reported that injecting a small amount of ozone into a bad back may ease chronic pain caused by a herniated disc.

Injections of ozone and oxygen can shrink a disc that’s bulging out and putting pressure on surrounding nerves and tissue, according to Kieran Murphy, MD, who presented data on the technique at the Society of Interventional Radiology meeting in Chicago.

About 20,000 people in Europe have been treated with the ozone-injection technique, says Dr. Murphy, who presented data at the meeting on 8,000 patients treated in Italy and Austria. He says the success rate is 70 to 75 percent in terms of pain relief, and few back pain patients need more than one injection. (About 6 out of 50 in an early trial, he says).

Next page: How it works

“Ozone reacts with protein and breaks it down into carbon dioxide and water, so you get a subtle volume reduction [in the disc],” says Dr. Murphy, an interventional neuroradiologist and vice chair and chief of medical imaging at the University of Toronto. “It’s like letting a little bit of air out the tires of your car.”

About four out of five people suffer from back pain at some point; a herniated disc is a common cause. Herniated disc symptoms can include numbness or tingling in the buttocks or legs, or sciatica, a sharp, shooting pain from the buttocks down the back of the leg.

Dr Murphy has invented a small patented, pen-like device that can be used to produce ozone for the procedure, which differs from larger ozone-generating devices used in European trials, he says. Under X-ray guidance, a needle is inserted into the disc and the oxygen-ozone mixture (98 percent oxygen; 2 percent ozone) is injected. The device and technique aren’t available in the United States; both require Food and Drug Administration approval.

“I think it will help a lot of people avoid surgery but it will also help a lot of people who might get better over a year get better in say, six weeks,” says Dr. Murphy. “Not all people need surgery. In fact I think all doctors try not to operate on people, but I think what this will do is further reduce the number who will go on to need surgery.”

The new technique “could be a major advance for a very common problem,” says Brian Stainken, MD, president elect of the Society of Interventional Radiology.

Next page: Similar techniques are already available

However, Dr. Stainken notes that ozone injections have not been studied in placebo-controlled trials. That’s important because many people with back pain get better without injections or surgeries. Right now it’s impossible to say how many people who improved after the ozone-injection therapy would have gotten better without the injections.

“I think it’s something to watch,” says Dr. Stainken, who’s at the Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, Rhode Island. The results look “strongly encouraging,” he says, but “clearly that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to do the necessary trials to prove that it’s important.”

However, Stuart Kahn, MD, director of Spine and Pain Rehabilitation at the Spine Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York says he’s “an extreme skeptic of new technologies that are micro- or minimally invasive.”

There are already FDA-approved techniques that work in a similar fashion, he says, called the nucleoplasty and dekompressor techniques. They work “in a very small percentage of the [back-pain] population who have symptomatic sciatica from a disc bulge.” He says the techniques don’t “work well in patients who have a real herniation where the disc material is already extruded out of the center of the disc.”

Such techniques can have a 25 to 30 percent response rate, which is still “a pretty miraculous treatment” in patients who have failed all other therapies, including medication, physical therapy, home exercise programs, and epidural steroid injections. Such patients might otherwise need back surgery.

The ozone injections seem to be “a new twist on existing technology that’s pretty good for the right patient population and it might tweak something that already exists,” says Dr. Kahn. “I’d love to see a head-to-head study with existing technologies.”

Related Links:The Three Types of Low Back PainCan Injections Help Your Low Back Pain?Slideshow: 5 Ways to Stop Back PainChoosing Back Surgery: Two Patients’ Stories

10 Worst Food Trends, a Low

Don’t spend July Fourth in the kitchen! You can have your ‘slaw and eat it, too, with these easy takes on classic American favorites. [RealSimple]

Hey, Diet Coke addict! We’re talking to you. Put your hands in the air, and step away from the can. New research says diet sodas may be expanding your waistline. [Time HealthLand]

Soggy entrée? A fee for tap water? Unreadable menu? These are all part of the 10 worst food trends. [Sunset]

We’ve got your back—literally. These tips and tricks will help prevent back injury, or provide relief if you’re already suffering. [NYT]

If you say “TGIF” the low-cal way with this fruity tequila cocktail, you can still say “TGI Beach Day” on the Fourth. [FitSugar]

Optimism, as a weight-loss plan? We’ll bite. Here are five ways to see the bright side. [DailySpark]

Use your words—you might just tap into a therapeutic practice. Find out how expressive writing has the power to heal. [CNN]

Look no further than the kitchen counter for your next spa day. Try these eight DIY beauty treatments with natural ingredients. [HuffPo]

Yoga, Stretching May Ease Chronic Back Pain

Getty Images

By Amanda MacMillan

MONDAY, October 24, 2011 ( — People who suffer from chronic back pain may find some relief in yoga or intensive stretching, but neither form of exercise appears to be more effective than the other, a new study suggests.

Roughly 80% of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lives, and as many as 8% will experience chronic symptoms that last three months or longer. Primary care physicians regularly prescribe painkillers and muscle relaxants to these patients with varying degrees of success, or refer patients to physical therapists, chiropractors, or other specialists. Many doctors also recommend exercise and stretching, but few studies have explored whether certain physical activities are especially effective for back-pain patients.

The new study, which appears this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, is a follow-up to a small 2005 trial that found that yoga was slightly better for back pain than a comprehensive exercise program that included strength training, aerobics, and stretching. The researchers suspected this might have been due to the meditation-like “mental component” of yoga, and they expected to get a similar result this time around.

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The study included 228 mentally healthy adults with moderate chronic back pain, most of whom were fairly active in spite of their pain. The researchers randomly assigned them to one of three groups: One group took weekly 75-minute yoga classes, another took weekly stretching and strength classes, and a control group received a book on coping with back pain. The yoga and stretching groups also received instructional videos and were encouraged to practice at home for 20 minutes a day between classes.

Three months later, the stretching and yoga participants were far more likely than the people in the control group to report improvement in their back pain. Twice as many participants in these two groups (about 40%, versus 20% in the control group) said they’d decreased their medication use, a trend that persisted three months after the yoga and stretching classes ended.

Yoga was no more effective than stretching, however. This finding, which surprised the researchers, suggests that the back-pain benefits of yoga are mostly due to its physical (rather than mental or spiritual) aspects, the study notes. And in fact, the stretching class was not unlike a yoga class, says Karen Sherman, PhD, the lead author of the study and a senior investigator at the Group Health Research Institute, the research arm of a Seattle-based nonprofit health plan.

The stretching classes comprised “52 minutes [of] focusing on all the major groups in the back and the legs,” Sherman says. “In that sense it was more like a yoga class with specific poses than what you’d think of as regular stretching.”

Next page: Not any yoga class will do

Scott Duke, a sports chiropractor in New York City who was not involved in the study, says he’s not surprised by the results. “I recommend flexibility exercises to every single lower back pain patient I have,” he says. “Therapeutic stretching combined with relaxation and deep breathing absolutely helps low back pain.”

The study should encourage physicians to incorporate stretching into their standard treatment protocol for back pain, Duke says. “Doctors today are looking for ways patients can be more proactive and take care of their own back pain, versus having to go to somebody to get treated,” he adds.

But not just any yoga or stretching class will do the trick. The type of yoga used in the study focused on the back and legs, and was adapted for each individual’s physical limitations. Sherman stresses that back-pain patients should avoid vinyasa, or “power yoga,” classes, and should seek out therapeutic and restorative styles instead.

Without proper guidance and limits, patients may find themselves worse off than when they started. Even in the study, about 15% of the yoga and stretching participants exacerbated their back pain, a rate Duke says is close to real-world averages. (One patient in the control group also reported injuries from attempting exercises described in the self-care book.)

“Find a class geared toward beginners, and an instructor who has experience working with and making adjustments for people with chronic pain,” Sherman says. “Go to class, practice at home, and see if it works. And if not, try another class.”

3 Ways to Prevent Back Pain in 75 Seconds

Ever notice how animals stretch when they wake up? Take a cue from your pet and keep your back healthy with these morning moves from chiropractor Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Joplin, Missouri.

Low back stretchBring both knees to your chest by first raising one knee and holding it with both hands, then raising the other to join it. Gently pull both knees toward your chest and breathe. Hold for 20 seconds.

Pelvic tiltLie on your back with your knees bent. Tighten your ab muscles so that the small of your back presses flat against the bed or floor. Hold for five seconds, then relax. Repeat three times.

Glute stretchLying on your back with knees bent, cross left leg over your right. Gently pull your right knee toward your chest, so you feel a stretch in your left glute. Hold for 20 seconds; repeat on the other side.

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Move of the Week: Knee Strike

Punch off the pounds with our Move of the Week: The Knee Strike.

Channel all your energy and stress from the day into this workout, which targets the abs and the back–both important muscle groups to strengthen for boxing.

If the move seems too simple, grab two 5-pound dumbbells in each hand and continue through the exercise.

How to do it: Stand with knees slightly bent, feet in fighter’s stance (left foot forward). Raise both arms up and to left as if grabbing something. Engage core muscles and pull hands down as you bend right knee and lift it up to meet them. Return to previous position, tapping right toes to the floor. Do 10 reps, then switch sides and repeat.Try this move: Knee Strike

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Move of the Day: Opposite Arm and Leg Reach

Quit saying, “my aching back” and start doing this effective move to strengthen your back. This exercise will help you get stronger and avoid injury, as well as improve your posture.

How to do it: Start on all fours. Reach your right arm forward while simultaneously stretching your left leg back and flexing your foot. Hold for 5 seconds, then release both your arm and opposite leg. Repeat using the left arm and right leg. That’s one rep. Do 10 to 15 reps.

Trainer tip: Make sure to keep your back, arms, and legs straight.

Try this move: Opposite arm and leg reach

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Move of the Day: Bird Dog

This move works on your upper back, butt, and core. All you need is a mat to work this trifecta, and after 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions each, you’ll be on your way to a toned mid-section.

How to do it: Get down on all fours. Keeping your abs engaged, lift your right arm and left leg so they’re in line with your body. Reach out your hand and foot in opposite directions from each other. Hold for a 3-5 seconds while engaging your core (don’t let your belly sag). Return to starting position. Repeat with opposite arm and leg; that’s one rep.

Try this move: Bird Dog

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Blast it Off with Yoga

Move of the Day: Reverse Fly

We love this move because it targets back muscles that often don’t get a workout. All you need is a pair of 5 to 8 pound dumbbells and you can strengthen your back in just a few minutes almost anywhere. Waiting for the laundry to finish? Cooking pasta and waiting for the water to boil? This move can be your time killer.

How to do it: Stand up straight with feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent slightly, and back straight. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, with palms facing toward the body, bend forward at the waist. Engage your core and keep the elbows bent slightly. Bring the weights out to the sides and up as far as you can. Make sure not to lock the elbows. Squeeze the shoulder blades together; lower the back down. Come back to a straight standing position and bring the arms down.

Repeat for two sets of 16 reps.

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Move of the Day: Swan Dive

This move is challenging, and part of many yoga and pilates workouts. The swan dive targets your back muscles to give you a sleek and sexy back–if you’re diligent with this move you’ll be sure to see a difference in no time!

How to do it: Lie face down on a mat with arms stretched overhead, toes pointed. Lift your arms and legs about 6 inches off the ground. Hold for 1 count, imagining your legs being pulled out and back, away from your hips. Then, circle your arms out to each side of your body behind you. Exhale and reach your arms toward the toes, palms facing the body (as seen in the photo). Hold for 1 count, then bring arms back to starting position and relax entire body to ground. That’s one rep.

Repeat for 6 to 8 reps.

Try this move: Swan Dive

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