New Thinking on How to Relieve Back Pain
Recent research has turned some medical advice on its head: Hands-on methods are preferred over drugs or surgery
consumer reports real relief from back pain
Our guide below examines the risks and benefits of three types of treatments: sleep, exercise, and hands-on therapies; drugs and supplements; and surgeries and injections. You should work with your doctor to figure out the combination of treatments that makes the most sense for you.
Schneiderhan also recommends talking to your doctor about how you’ll measure progress. Reducing pain is important, but the most important goal might be improving your ability to move through your daily activities. “Pain can vary widely,” she says. “If we just focus on that, we miss the bigger picture: that there’s this living we are trying to do.”
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.
Total Spent out of Pocket: Less than $100 (35 percent) to $1,000 or more (9 percent).
Good to Know:consumer reports real relief from back pain There’s an art as well as a science to giving an effective massage. Look for a therapist licensed by your state who specializes in sports medicine or who has experience with back pain. A massage shouldn’t make you wince, so make sure that you communicate when the pressure feels good or is too intense.
This treatment, done by chiropractors and some other healthcare professionals, uses controlled forces—sometimes mild, sometimes firm—to adjust the spine and allow it to move more easily. There are rare reports of serious complications, and though vigorous spinal manipulation shouldn’t be done on people with severe osteoporosis of the spine, it’s usually safe for others.
Total Spent out of Pocket: Less than $100 (38 percent) to $1,000 or more (11 percent).
Good to Know: Licensed chiropractors earn a four-year degree. Physicians with a degree in osteopathic medicine—indicated by a “D.O.” rather than an “M.D.” after their name—usually focus on primary care and have additional training in the musculoskeletal system. Some doctors of osteopathic medicine offer spinal manipulation as part of their treatment.
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 (see below).
Total Spent out of Pocket: Less than $100 (56 percent) to $1,000 or more (6 percent).
Good to Know: Physical therapy should be challenging. Once something becomes easy, the therapist should add weight, repetitions, or new exercises. Physical therapists often use hot or cold packs and ultrasound treatments, which warm tissues deep in your body. The treatment can feel good, but you can do it yourself with ice or heat at home. And it’s not clear whether ultrasound yields faster healing. So consider using your valuable appointment time for exercise and other therapies.
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. For example, it may activate nerves to interrupt pain signals as they travel through the spinal cord to the brain.
Total Spent out of Pocket: Less than $100 (35 percent) to $1,000 or more (8 percent).
Good to Know: Make sure the acupuncturist is licensed in your state. Therapy shouldn’t be painful, but you might feel a slight twitch when a practitioner inserts the needles. Acupuncture is safe as long as you’re in the hands of a trained and licensed practitioner who uses sterile needles.
We don’t have survey results on the following two treatments, but 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 these 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: consumer reports real relief from back pain 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. Class IIIb lasers, which are typically used to treat pain, are safer because they don’t heat the skin or underlying tissue.