What Really Gets Rid of Back Pain?

An apparently straightforward medical question causes heated debate among doctors—and the answer affects their patients. "What is the best way to treat back pain?" Despite countless years of research into treating back pain, doctors and medical specialists continue to disagree over which treatments to prescribe.

This lack of consensus often leaves patients confused. Which medical expert should they listen to? Spine surgeons? Chiropractors? Physical therapists? Massage specialists? Should they try acupuncture or steroid injections? The list of treatment options is long, complex, and perplexing.

Male and female doctor having discussion with medication in the foregroundDespite countless years of fine research into treating back pain, doctors and medical specialists continue to disagree over which treatments to prescribe.A 2008 national survey by SpineUniverse helps patients cut through the confusion and ask informed questions about their own treatment. While the research results must never replace the advice of a medical professional, they are a useful tool to help patients ask informed questions about their own pain treatment.

In the survey, SpineUniverse presented patients with a list of treatment options:

  • Acupuncture/acupressure
  • Chiropractic
  • Exercise (eg, yoga, weight training, swimming)
  • Herbal remedies
  • Injections (eg, epidural steroid injections)
  • Massage
  • Over-the-counter pain medication (eg, acetaminophen)
  • Prescription pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery
  • Weight loss

Using a scale ranging from Very Dissatisfied to Very Satisfied, patients were asked to rate their satisfaction with the outcome of each treatment they tried: Did it relieve their pain?

The results were surprising—and controversial.

Back Pain Treatment Options Results

% of respondents dissatisfied or worse with back pain treatment option0

Remarkably, several of the most common and traditional back pain treatments left most patients who tried them dissatisfied—or even very dissatisfied. Over-the-counter pain medications, chiropractic care, and injections were all in the top 5 for high levels of patient dissatisfaction.

In fact, over-the-counter pain medication was second most unhelpful treatment—and that's a surprise. Over-the-counter pain medications are typically among the first treatments people try, an idea that was supported by the survey results: More people tried this treatment option than any other option, excluding exercise.

When people wake up with pain or when pain flares up throughout the day, they'll turn to the medicine cabinet to find temporary pain relief. They'll grab acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and hope it'll reduce the pain so they can get through the day.

However, the SpineUniverse survey results seem to indicate those over-the-counter pain medications aren't really helping—or they aren't helping enough for people with back pain. More than 70% (71.2%) of people who tried them were dissatisfied or worse with the result.

Interestingly, prescription pain medication had the highest patient satisfaction level: 61.1% of people who tried this treatment option were satisfied or better with the result.

Two of the other treatments with the highest satisfaction ratings are the lowest cost and easiest to implement: Exercise and weight loss both satisfied 58% of those respondents who tried these options. Conveniently enough, these options often go hand-in-hand. Exercise more and increase your total fitness level, and you'll most likely lose weight. Since there's a connection between being overweight and having back pain, starting a healthy exercise habit is a win-win.

And the best news for patients: Massage satisfied 60.4% of respondents. Since many cases of back pain are the result of muscle sprain or strain, it makes sense that a massage would help. A good massage—done by a qualified massage therapist—thoroughly relaxes the muscles and increases blood circulation (which will help the muscles heal).

End Result for Patients: What Does This Mean for Your Back Pain Treatment?
No treatment should ever be dismissed, as everyone's pain and condition are different. Some people found relief with all these treatment options. Regardless of the numbers, patients shouldn't rule out a treatment option: It just may be the option that works for them.

However, the high percentage of patients dissatisfied with several mainstream treatments, including chiropractic care and injections, raises concern. These treatments undoubtedly benefit many patients, so they shouldn't be dismissed entirely.

Instead, these survey results underscore the importance of why patients should carefully question their medical professional before starting a treatment. Patients deserve to know how likely it is that the treatment will be effective for their condition. If you aren’t sure whether the recommended treatment is right for you, don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion for reassurance.

And when all is said and done, it is encouraging to know that massage garnered such high patient satisfaction. Perhaps now we all have an excuse for extra visits to the spa.

Updated on: 05/31/18
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Full Results for SpineUniverse Back Pain Treatment Options Survey
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Full Results for SpineUniverse Back Pain Treatment Options Survey

SpineUniverse presents their survey results from early 2008 where website visitors rated non-surgical back pain treatments on a scale from very dissatisfied to very satisfied.
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