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Kinder, gentler, therapy for back pain

For back pain, new guidelines from the American College of Physicians recommend starting with treatments such as acupuncture, massage and yoga, and turning to drugs or surgery only when those more active therapies don't work.

Consumer Reports lists nondrug therapies.

1. Yoga and Tai Chi. These exercises strengthen the muscles in your abdomen and back that are crucial to supporting your back. They also improve balance and flexibility, and help you become more aware of a healthy posture. Yoga and tai chi also encourage a quieting of the mind that allows you to focus on movements or postures, which can ease stress and provide mental distance from your pain.

Good to know: For back pain, consider classes described as gentle or relaxing, and avoid those characterized as more strenuous with words like "power" or "Ashtanga."

2. Massage. This treatment relaxes tense muscles and increases blood flow to injured areas. It also triggers the release of endorphins, feel-good hormones that decrease stress and anxiety associated with pain.

Good to know: A massage shouldn't make you wince, so make sure that you communicate when the pressure feels good or is too intense.

3. Spinal Manipulation. This treatment, done by chiropractors and some other health care professionals, uses controlled forces to adjust the spine and allow it to move more easily. There are rare reports of serious complications.

Good to know: Some doctors of osteopathic medicine offer spinal manipulation as part of their treatment.

4. Physical Therapy. Physical therapy focuses on improving your ability to do your daily activities and teaches you how to prevent future back problems. Treatments vary, but most combine strengthening and stretching with passive care such as massage and low-level laser therapy.

Good to know: Physical therapy should be challenging. Once something becomes easy, Consumer Reports notes, the therapist should add weight, repetitions or new exercises.

5. Acupuncture. In Eastern thought, it's believed that inserting thin needles at specific points on the body helps correct imbalances in qi, the flow of energy. From a Western perspective, acupuncture is believed to affect soft tissue and nerves in ways that lessen pain.

Good to know: Therapy shouldn't be painful, but you might feel a slight twitch.

6. Additional Therapies. According to Consumer Reports, the American College of Physicians says that at least some evidence supports them:

-- Biofeedback. A therapist will first teach you several relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and progressively tensing and relaxing muscles throughout your body. Then you'll be connected via electrodes to computer monitors that track your heart and breathing rates, muscle tension and skin temperature. The idea is that by watching the monitors while practicing those techniques, you can learn to relax tight muscles in your back and decrease physical reactions to daily stress that can worsen pain.

-- Low-level laser therapy. Pointing a laser at the injured site causes blood vessels to dilate, which can increase blood flow to the area. The laser may also temporarily desensitize pain receptors. Ask which type of laser will be used in your treatment. So-called Class lllb lasers, which are typically used to treat pain, are safer because they don't heat the skin or underlying tissue.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

Wireless earphones liberate listeners

The hottest developments in consumer electronics these days are as close as your ears. Headphone engineers are using some of the coolest cutting-edge technology to create portable earphones that are totally free of wires (finally!).

They've designed some noise-canceling headphone models that deliver both excellent sound and noise-canceling capability. They're also adding fun features and functions to sports models, such as heart-rate and activity monitors and "coaches" that will talk you through your workout routine. There are even models that you can pop into your ears while you're swimming laps.

Here's a rundown on what you need to know about each type from Consumer Reports.

-- True Wireless Earphones

Wireless headphone sales exceeded sales of wired models last year for the first time. As the name suggests, true wireless earphones have no external wires at all. The two untethered earpieces fit into the ears, very much like a pair of hearing aids would. Some, like the Apple AirPods, follow voice commands to do things such as pause or skip to the next song.

Advantages: Because there are no wires, there's nothing to tangle or knot and nothing hanging behind your head, running under your chin or worn around your neck in a collar.

Drawbacks: The earpieces of true wireless earphones contain all of the electronics, so they're larger and heavier than most other types, which can take some getting used to. Most hold a charge for only three or so hours.

-- Noise-Canceling Headphones

Frequent fliers have appreciated the welcome dose of serenity delivered by noise-canceling headphones ever since Bose introduced the first pair almost 20 years ago. But Consumer Reports notes that while many models have long done well at canceling sound, most haven't delivered top-notch audio. Fortunately, there are exceptions, such as the new Bose QuietControl 30, the first wireless portable noise-canceling headphone model to be rated Excellent in both noise reduction and sound quality.

Advantages: Some do a good job of dampening sounds and creating a measure of quiet even in the noisiest environments.

Drawbacks: They're best at canceling steady, constant sound, so they won't eliminate the wail of the crying baby in the row behind you, but the better models will do a decent job of muffling it.

-- Sports Headphones

Almost everyone likes at least the idea of getting in shape, which might be why well over half of all wireless portable headphones Consumer Reports recently rated are sports models. "They're typically designed to stay in the ear and not shake loose, a lot of them claim to be moisture resistant and many of the ones we've rated have very good sound," says Maurice Wynn, a senior tester in Consumer Reports' labs.

Advantages: Generally secure-fitting and light, with some capable of producing very good sound, sports headphones can be a versatile choice.

Drawbacks: They'll track your steps or other activity only while you're wearing them, which can make them impractical to use in place of a fitness tracker.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

Keep your medicine cabinet safe

More than 212,000 adults and half a million children were accidentally poisoned by prescription and over-the-counter medication during 2015. Having a medicine cabinet packed with unsecured pills on every shelf is a big risk: It makes it too easy for you to grab the wrong meds or for anyone in your household (dog included) to accidentally ingest them.

Alarmingly, 31 percent of people in a nationally representative survey conducted by Consumer Reports said it had been more than a year since they had cleaned out their medicine cabinet.

Keep yourself and your family safer by being vigilant. Purge old pills regularly. Lock up drugs that can lead to overdoses or illness. And keep the planet safer by disposing of medications properly. Consumer Reports offers this guide.

Everyday Prescription and Over-The-Counter Drugs

-- Disposal option No. 1: Return to a pharmacy in person. New at Walgreens (in most states) are take-back kiosks available every day, free of charge. Discarded meds are incinerated, not put into landfills. Search for other collection sites at disposemymeds.org or deadiversion.usdoj.gov. Or call the Drug Enforcement Administration at 800-882-9539. You can also wait for National Rx Take-Back Day (April 29 and Oct. 28), when communities set up many designated collection sites.

-- Disposal option No. 2: Mail back. Costco, CVS and Rite Aid sell disposal envelopes for a few bucks to mail pills, capsules and patches (but not needles or inhalers) to disposal facilities, where they're likely to be incinerated.

-- Disposal option No. 3: Put in the trash. Consumer Reports recommends first concealing pills by mixing them in a bag with an unappealing substance, like used coffee grounds or kitty litter, then toss. But drugs can contaminate landfill soil and water.

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Dangerous Prescription Drugs

These include pain meds, stimulants, sleep drugs, muscle relaxers and other dangerous drugs.

-- Disposal option No. 1: Return to a pharmacy in person.

-- Disposal option No. 2: Mail back.

-- Disposal option No. 3: As a last resort, the Food and Drug Administration suggests that you flush certain dangerous drugs, like opioids. But trace amounts can end up in drinking water and also possibly harm aquatic life.

Syringes, Auto-Injectors and Inhalers

-- Disposal for syringes: Syringes pose a risk of accidental needle sticks, cuts and punctures, plus a risk of infection from use by other people. Go to safeneedledisposal.org or call 800-643-1643 to find drop-off locations near you.

-- Disposal for inhalers: Don't put these in the trash, Consumer Reports advises, because the remaining contents may be combustible. Contact your local trash and recycling facility for proper disposal instructions.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

Is popcorn the perfect snack?

Popcorn has the crunchy, salty appeal of chips or pretzels, but you can have 3 cups of the air-popped snack for slightly fewer calories than you'll find in one sourdough pretzel.

Manufacturers of bagged brands have capitalized on popcorn's relatively healthy reputation, splashing the front of the packages with such claims as "whole grain," "gluten-free" and "50 percent less fat." Many brands also boast the calorie count per cup. Even some of the popcorn brand names -- such as SkinnyPop and Smartfood -- make the products sound like health foods, if not outright diet aids.

The food-testing team at Consumer Reports set out to see how well bagged popcorn lived up to its health claims.

-- Health Perks of (Plain) Popcorn

Though you might not think to put it in the same category as whole-wheat bread or steel-cut oats, popcorn is a whole grain, which research has shown can help your health. A 2016 review of 45 studies published in the British Medical Journal found that eating three servings of whole grains per day was linked to a 22 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease risk and a 15 percent reduced risk of cancer. Whole grains are also a good source of antioxidants, compounds that can prevent cell damage.

Of course, a popcorn's healthfulness depends on the ingredients -- and the amount of them -- it contains, says Beth Kitchin, Ph.D., R.D.N., assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. A little salt and oil, or sugar in a kettle corn, may not hurt. "But if you're loading it up, you can get into trouble," she says.

-- How to Read a Popcorn Bag Label

Consumer Reports looked at the original or the most basic sea salt variety of five bagged brands: Angie's Boomchickapop; Cape Cod; Popcorn, Indiana; SkinnyPop; and Smartfood. All of them had just three ingredients -- popcorn, oil and salt -- and contained 70 to 78 calories, 3 to 5 grams of fat and 40 to 117 mg of sodium per 2-cup serving. That put them in the Good or Fair rating category for nutrition.

The fat and sodium counts cost them a higher rating, says Consumer Reports nutritionist Ellen Klosz. Still, any of the five popcorns makes a healthier choice than chips or pretzels.

For the most part, Consumer Reports' tested popcorns' nutrition was in line with their front-of-the-bag claims. The one surprise was SkinnyPop, a brand that has had a greater percentage growth in sales over the past few years than its biggest competitors. Given its name, a consumer might well think that SkinnyPop is lower in calories and fat, but it actually contains more of both than the other four popcorns.

All five brands performed well in Consumer Reports' taste tests. Angie's Boomchickapop Sea Salt snagged an Excellent rating for its toasted-corn flavor and crispy-crunchy texture. Cape Cod Seaside Pop Sea Salt even had a tasty flavor similar to that of unbuttered movie popcorn.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

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