Has your back been bothering you for months -- or years -- and
still you and your doctor haven't been able to figure out why? You're not
alone. Back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability in America,
according to the National Institutes of Health, and costs about $50 billion a
year in treatments. Some 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some
time in their lives. But most cases of back pain can't be traced to a specific,
"It's a huge problem that we have for both conventional and
alternative techniques for treating back pain," says Daniel C. Cherkin,
PhD, a senior investigator at the Group Health Cooperative's Center for Health
Studies (CHS) in Seattle. "With this huge category of people who have
what's referred to as non-specific back pain, you can't trace it to a
Pierce Dunn thought surgery had put an end to nearly 15 years of back pain.
After a double discectomy about eight years ago, he says, "I could wake up in
the morning without worrying that I wouldn't be able to get out of bed. I
became a human being again!"
Feeling revitalized, Dunn, now 57, a partner in a Baltimore investment
advisory firm, decided to return to his former hobby: golf. "I played as
frequently as I could," says Dunn. "Since then I've been told that golf is
about the worst thing...
This conundrum leads many back pain sufferers to seek out
"alternative" treatments -- everything from massage and acupuncture to
mind-body therapies and exercise programs like yoga and tai chi. For example,
studies show that back pain accounts for 20% of visits to massage therapists
and 14% of visits to acupuncturists, Cherkin notes. But do any of these options
In many cases, the scientific jury is still out. A recent
review of dozens of studies looking at massage, acupuncture, and spinal
manipulation (chiropractic) as treatments for low back pain, led by Cherkin,
showed some evidence pointing toward the effectiveness of massage and spinal
manipulation, but less is known about acupuncture.
"The studies we reviewed found massage to be effective for
relieving symptoms and increasing function among people with persistent back
pain," Cherkin explains. "Spinal manipulation shows small clinical
benefits for back pain -- about the same as conventional medical treatments
such as over-the-counter pain relievers and various types of physical
Based on existing studies, the effectiveness of acupuncture
remains unclear, but a new, large study recently launched at the Group Health
Cooperative aims to answer some of those questions. To be conducted over four
years, the study is recruiting nearly 700 back pain sufferers and will compare
acupuncture to conventional care.