Are You Looking in the Right Place for Back Pain Relief?

What You Can Learn From America’s Back Pain Experience

A June 2010 article by Associated Press Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard shines a bright light on the problem of back pain in America.  In the article, entitled “Back Pain May Be Widely Over-Treated in the U.S.”, she raises some great questions about how we’re spending our healthcare dollars, what we’re getting for it and why. 

“By one recent estimate, Americans are spending a staggering $86 billion a year in care for aching backs—from MRIs to pain pills to nerve blocks to acupuncture.  That research found little evidence that the population got better as the bill soared over the past decade.”


Ms. Neergaard’s writing hits close to home, and the situation she describes is probably familiar to anyone who’s tried to find relief from serious back pain in the past few years.  But what does it all mean to you if you or someone you care about is a patient looking for relief? 

Here’s a quick summary of the more important takeaways from Ms. Neergard’s article as well as some practical points to keep in mind as you consider your options and work with your healthcare provider on a treatment plan:

While back pain in general is a widespread problem in the U.S., the specifics always come down to the individual.  There is no silver bullet—the treatment that was effective for your neighbor may not be right for you.  Your healthcare provider can evaluate your symptoms and advise you on the appropriateness of alternative therapies.

Time is usually on your side when it comes to back pain.  Up to 90% of patients will heal on their own within a matter of weeks (However just because the pain is gone doesn't mean the problem actually healed or was fixed).  Unless your healthcare provider sees “red flag” symptoms, patients should generally exhaust their noninvasive options first before considering surgery. 95% of all spine pain problems are biomechanical and only 5% represent tumor, infection, fracture or significant disc herniation.

“Exercise is medicine, but it has to be the right exercise.”  Formal exercise programs that are designed and supervised by experts can be effective provided that the patient is able to manage and function with pain.   

Your own motivation and attitude can make a big difference in the effectiveness of your treatment.  Patients who can work through pain, stay focused on the plan and get back to normal activity as quickly as possible will generally have the advantage when it comes to recovery.  

Make sure you have access to a neutral third party (perhaps your chiropractor or family doctor) who can help you weigh the advice of various specialists and navigate through your choices. Remember, since 95% of all spine pain is biomechanical in nature (misaligned vertebra, poor posture, or muscle imbalance) it makes sense to seek advice from a chiropractor or other musculoskeletal specialist who understands biomechanics. And always get a second opinion if surgery is being considered.

Back pain is a complex phenomenon and it’s often very difficult to treat successfully.  At a time when health science regularly produces new miracles and we’ve come to expect instant results, it can be difficult for us to keep this basic truth in perspective.  What comes through loud and clear in Ms. Neergaard’s article is that our most advanced diagnostic technologies and sophisticated surgical procedures are not solving the back pain problem for millions of Americans.  And that it’s costing us a great deal of money to fail using our most expensive techniques.

This raises two big-picture questions, not just for U.S. health care policy makers and administrators, but for anyone who’s trying to make smart decisions about back pain treatment:

Given the pervasiveness of back pain in America, the number of people who are likely suffering without treatment and the kinds of issues Ms. Neergaard writes about, can it really be said that we’re “over-treating” back pain?  Wouldn’t it be closer to the truth to say that we’re mistreating it by using too many of the wrong tools in too many of the wrong cases?  If so, what does her reporting really suggest about the direction we should be headed?

There are many factors contributing to our national back pain epidemic, and many of them have to do with our lifestyle choices and the way we manage our health more broadly.    What should we be willing to spend for an ounce of prevention when it comes to back pain? 

How Your Chiropractic Physician Can Help

If you or someone you care about is suffering with back pain, call your Doctor of Chiropractic.  Chiropractic Physicians are specially licensed and trained to diagnose and treat conditions related to the musculoskeletal system and the nerves that support it.  They can help relieve back pain by using spinal adjustments.  This spinal manipulation is the primary form of treatment performed by chiropractic physicians and is a widely recognized back pain therapy.  Research has shown that manipulative therapy and spinal manipulation are not only safe and effective, but can also produce results more quickly and less expensively than other alternatives. And since 95% of spine pain problems are biomechanical in nature it makes sense to start here.