One of the most common reasons people go to the doctor is lower back pain, and one of the most common reasons doctors prescribe powerful, addictive narcotics is lower back pain.
Now, new research published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association offers the latest evidence that spinal manipulation can offer a modestly effective alternative.
Researchers analyzed 26 studies involving more than 1,700 patients with lower back pain. The analysis found spinal manipulation can reduce lower back pain as measured by patients on a pain scale, like this one from zero to 10.
Spinal manipulation, which is typically done by chiropractors and physical therapists, involves applying pressure and moving joints in the spine.
Patients undergoing spinal manipulation experienced a decline of 1 point in their pain rating, says Dr. Paul Shekelle, an internist with the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Rand Corp. who headed the study.
"So if it had been a 7 it would be a 6, or if it had been a 5 it would be a 4," Shekelle says. That's about the same amount of pain relief as from NSAIDs, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen.
The study also found spinal manipulation modestly improved function. On average, patients reported greater ease and comfort engaging in two day-to-day activities, such as finding they could walk more quickly, were having less difficulty turning over in bed or were sleeping more soundly.
It's not clear exactly how spinal manipulation relieves back pain. But it may reposition the small joints in the spine in way that causes less pain, according to Dr. Richard Deyo, a professor of evidence-based medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University. Deyo wrote an editorial published along with the study.
Another possibility is that spinal manipulation may restore some material in the disk between the vertebrae, Deyo says, or it may simply relax muscles, which could be important.
There may also be mind-body interaction that comes from the "laying of hands" or a trusting relationship between patients and their health care provider, he says.
Deyo notes that there are many possible treatments for lower back pain, including oral medications, injected medications, corsets, traction, surgery, acupuncture and massage therapy. But of about 200 treatment options, "no single treatment is clearly superior," he says. The findings of this study may change that slightly.
The findings are in line with guidelines the American College of Physicians released recently. Those guidelines suggest people with low back pain use techniques to speed up the healing process, including heat wraps, massage, acupuncture and spinal manipulation. The bottom line message, says Deyo, is to try to avoid medication.
"Even over-the-counter medications have some important side effects and complications," Deyo says. "Spinal manipulation seems to be quite safe when it's done in the lower back."
Medications can cause gastritis, an upset stomach and a rise in blood pressure. And if patients are prescribed stronger medication, such as opioids, they risk long term use and even addiction.
Dr. Steven Atlas, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who practices at Massachusetts General Hospital, says the study offers "more support for alternative treatments," particularly for patients who are not getting better with self-care techniques such as heating pads, exercise and yoga.
Atlas says further research could help identify patients who would benefit most from spinal manipulation therapy. This could make it easier for doctors to refer patients for treatment by a chiropractor or physical therapist, he says.