My Encore Years | New Thinking on Back Pain

Drugs and surgery should be a last resort, experts say

For decades, doctors have treated back pain with medication and, in some cases, surgery. But the growing epidemic of opioid addiction has helped spur more serious studies of “alternative” therapies, such as yoga, tai chi, massage, physical therapy and working with a chiropractor.

Good news: There’s increasing evidence that these nonmedical approaches can be as or more effective than drugs or surgery.

Consumer Reports’ June cover story reveals new solutions to back pain — most commonly the result of muscle injuries, age-related erosion of the cushioning between the vertebrae, and herniated or slipped disks. In a survey of 3,562 sufferers, the magazine reports, more than 80 percent said that using one or more of the nonmedical methods mentioned above eased their pain.

“People are really getting relief,” says Teresa Carr, senior editor at Consumer Reports. Carr was most surprised to find that these less conventional treatments are being taken seriously by the medical community: “They aren’t alternative anymore; they’re mainstream.”

In fact, earlier this year the American College of Physicians announced new clinical guidelines recommending that treatment of low-back pain begin with nondrug approaches, including acupuncture, mindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga and progressive relaxation. The ACP advised that doctors consider opioids only as a last resort and after carefully weighing the risks for each patient.

Consulting a physician may not even be necessary in many cases of back pain. Rick Deyo, a spine researcher and professor at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore., says, “Most people are going to get better no matter what they do.”

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