If you’ve ever seen a doctor for back pain, you’re not alone. An estimated 85% of people experience back pain severe enough to see a doctor for at some point in their life. Yet despite how common it is, the precise cause of pain is often unclear. And a single, best treatment for most low back pain is unknown. For these reasons, doctors’ recommendations tend to vary. “Standard care” includes a balance of rest, stretching and exercise, heat, pain relievers, and time. Some doctors also suggest trying chiropractic care. The good news is that no matter what treatment is recommended, most people with a recent onset of back pain are better within a few weeks — often within a few days.
What’s the role of chiropractic care?
Some doctors refer back pain sufferers to a physical therapist right away. But many people with back pain see acupuncturists, massage therapists, or a chiropractor on their own. Experts disagree about the role of chiropractic care, and there are not many high-quality studies to consult about this approach. As a result, there are a number of questions regarding the role of chiropractic care: Should it be a routine part of initial care? Should it be reserved for people who don’t improve with other treatments? Are some people more likely to improve with chiropractic care than others?
The answers to these questions go beyond any academic debate about how good chiropractic care is. Estimates suggest that low back pain costs up to $200 billion a year in the US (including costs of care and missed work), and it’s a leading cause of disability worldwide. With the backdrop of the opioid crisis, we badly need an effective, safe, and non-opioid alternative to treat low back pain.
A recent study on chiropractic care for low back pain
A 2018 study published in JAMA Network Open is among the latest to weigh in on the pros and cons of chiropractic care for treating low back pain. Researchers enrolled 750 active-duty military personnel who complained of back pain. Half were randomly assigned to receive usual care (including medications, self-care, and physical therapy) while the other half received usual care plus up to 12 chiropractic treatments.
After six weeks of treatment, those assigned to receive chiropractic care:
• reported less pain intensity
• experienced less disability and more improvement in function
• reported higher satisfaction with their treatment
• needed less pain medicine.
While no serious side effects were reported, about 10% of those receiving chiropractic care described adverse effects (mostly stiffness in the joints or muscles). Five percent of those receiving usual care had similar complaints.
All studies have limitations
And this one is no exception. While this study suggests that chiropractic care may be helpful for low back pain, some aspects of the study make it hard to be sure. For example:
• It only lasted six weeks. As mentioned, most new-onset back pain is better by then regardless of treatment. For those with more long-lasting back pain, we’ll need more than a six-week study.
• The differences in improvement between those receiving chiropractic and usual care were small. It’s not clear how noticeable such a difference would be, or whether the cost of chiropractic care would be worth that small difference.
• The study included a mix of people with new and longer-standing low back pain and a mix of types of pain (including pain due to a pinched nerve, muscle spasm, or other reasons). If this study had included only people with muscle spasm, or only people who were obese (rather than military recruits), the results might differ. So, it’s hard to generalize these results to everyone with back pain.
• Most of the study subjects were young (average age 31) and male (77%). All were generally healthy and fit enough to pass military fitness testing.
• Study subjects knew which treatment they were receiving. This creates potential for a placebo effect. Also, the added time and attention (rather than the spinal manipulation) might have contributed to the response. Then again, these factors may not matter to a person who just wants relief.
• This study only included people who were willing to receive chiropractic care.
Even within the two groups, the care varied — that is, not everyone in the usual care group received the same treatment, and this can also be said for the chiropractic group.
If any of these factors had been different, the results might have been different. For example, it’s possible that if an older population of people with chronic low back pain had been studied, “usual care” might have been the better treatment.
This new study lends support for chiropractic care to treat low back pain. But it’s important to recognize the limitations of this trial, and keep in mind that treatment side effects were more common among those receiving chiropractic care. In addition, chiropractic treatments aren’t free (although, fortunately, insurance coverage for chiropractic care is becoming more common).
This won’t be — and shouldn’t be — the last study of chiropractic care for low back pain. But until we know more, I’ll continue to offer it as one of many treatment options.