Back on Track
Humans have searched for back-pain remedies for centuries, praying to Saint Lawrence for relief and even surgically “hitching up” the kidneys. Today treatment can consist of over-the-counter pain relievers as well as physical therapy, a system of exercises that temper pain and stretch and strengthen the structures supporting the spine. But if problems persist, consider these alternative therapies. Ask your doctor for guidance.
For sudden, painful episodes, these treatments are often the first choice. They let you relax while the therapist does the heavy lifting. Once you find relief, you will probably need to move on to active techniques (see following page) to maintain the benefits.
What it is: A chiropractor works on the back by using manual manipulation. For instance, he may do an “adjustment” of the spinal joints that aren’t moving fluidly, use a vibrational device called a Vibracussor to encourage tissues to relax and heal, or put you in traction to stretch the spine.
Why it works: Misaligned joints can lead to degeneration. By moving joints back into place, spinal manipulations help decrease pain. Treatments don’t always work, but when they do, you could notice a change within a week, followed by progressive improvement. In a 2012 study conducted at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland, patients who said that they felt “much better” or “better” a week after their first chiropractic treatment were four to five times as likely to improve even more over the course of the next three months than were those who saw no improvement after the first week. Tread cautiously, however, if you have osteoporosis, spinal-cord compression, or rheumatoid arthritis; chiropractic may exacerbate these conditions.
Cost: A session can run from $40 to $150. Many insurance plans cover at least a portion of this fee. Treatment can last several months, depending on the diagnosis.
Find a good practitioner: Look for recommendations from the American Chiropractic Association at acatoday.org.
What it is: In this practice of ancient Chinese medicine, the therapist inserts tiny needles behind the knees or into the back, hands, ankles, or ears—all regions thought to establish balance in the body. The acupuncturist will then leave you so you can relax for about 30 minutes before she removes the needles.
Why it works: Studies suggest that acupuncture eases acute pain by increasing blood flow, which in turn releases tight muscles. In the largest study to date of acupuncture for back pain, involving more than 1,100 patients at Ruhr University Bochum, in Germany, 47 percent of the patients who received 10 treatments experienced less pain six months later.
Cost: The initial visit costs $80 to $200, and follow-up private sessions average $40 to $100. Group sessions are available in some areas for $15 to $40 each. Some health plans cover at least a portion of these costs. Acupuncture may also be paid for with a pretax health-reimbursement account. Most patients with acute pain need two to three visits; those with chronic pain may need 6 to 10.
Find a good practitioner: Get help at acupuncturetoday.com, or check your state’s association of acupuncture or Oriental medicine.