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June, 2004, Vol. 04, Issue 06

Newsweek Validates Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Back Pain

By Editorial Staff

Chalk up one more point for the publishers of Newsweek. The magazine devoted nearly half of its Dec. 18, 2002 issue to "The Science of Alternative Medicine," a series of articles that looked at the most popular forms of complementary and alternative care, and the April 26, 2004 issue goes one step further in its promotion of alternative therapies in treating back pain.

In a cover story, "The Great Back Debate," editor Claudia Kalb explores the role back pain has played in American society.

While the article examines some surgical options used to treat back pain, it also gives a favorable review of massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, and other forms of alternative care.

Back pain is a universal problem; according to the article, an estimated 80 percent of the U.S. population will suffer from back pain at least once, making it the second most common reason for seeing a doctor, following coughs and other respiratory infections. Between medical bills, disability payments, and lost productivity and time at work, the costs of back pain add up to more than $100 billion per year.

One of the reasons back pain is so common, Kalb asserts, is because of the spine's delicate nature. "Like an expensive, but temperamental sports car, the human spine is beautifully designed and maddeningly unreliable," she writes. To complicate matters further, myriad conditions can cause back pain, including physical injuries like degenerated discs, compressed nerves, muscle tears and spasms, and ligament or tendon injuries, as well as psychological issues like depression and anxiety. Small wonder, then, that Kalb labels back pain a "mystifying mix of physical symptoms and psychological underpinnings."

Americans try invasive and costly remedies to treat their pain. The article notes that between 1996 and 2001, spinal-fusion surgery procedures (which cost approximately $34,000 each) increased by 77 percent. In 2001 alone, more than 250,000 spinal-fusion surgeries were performed, the vast majority employed to treat disc problems; however, fusion surgery was originally developed to correct serious instabilities and deformities of the spine, not to treat damaged or herniated discs. As a result, Kalb notes, "many of these procedures simply don't work." The lackluster results seen in spinal-fusion cases and other types of surgery have caused some practitioners to consider simpler, less invasive forms of care.

We've come to the point where we have to think out of the box," said Dr. David Eisenberg, the head of the Osher Institute at Harvard Medical School. "The time is now." Even experienced spine surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein of the New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases has cautioned that doctors need to be more selective about choosing candidates for spinal fusion surgery, and that "not everyone who has disc degeneration should have an operation."

So, what's a person with back pain to do? For millions of Americans, the choice has become some form of complementary and alternative medicine, including massage. According to the article, "Massage has seen an increasing number of addicted patients...research shows it can help knead out persistent pain; one study even found that patients took fewer medications during treatment."

The Hospital for Special Surgery in New York employs a variety of alternative health care options, including massage therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture, tai chi, personal trainers and rehabilitation specialists; providers work together for the good of the patient. The facility, which sees about 13,000 patients a year, many of them with bad backs, uses "any noninvasive approach they can find" to relieve pain.

As alternative forms of back pain care have increased, so has the amount of research into these therapies. Dr. Dan Cherkin, a researcher at the Center for Health Studies in Seattle, Wash., has conducted several large trials on the effectiveness of chiropractic, massage and acupuncture for back pain.

And Dr. Eisenberg is leading a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, using chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, neurologists, orthopedists and other practitioners, to see if there are more efficient and cost-effective ways of treating back pain from a multidisciplinary perspective."

After centuries of agony, humanity could certainly use some relief" from back pain, Kalb concludes. "But more important than the success of any given treatment is the good news that both back pain sufferers and the medical establishment are embracing bold new ways to think about that most exquisite and frustrating work of art: the spine."

If nothing else, the Newsweek story illustrates the value of complementary and alternative therapies in the treatment of back pain.

According to the World Press Group, Newsweek is one of the most widely read publications in the world; it is distributed in more than 190 countries and six languages, and has a weekly circulation of approximately 4.4 million (3.85 million in the United States).

Read "The Great Back Debate" Online

If you didn't pick up a copy of the April 26 issue of Newsweek at your local newsstand, fear not: The magazine has a partnership with the Microsoft Network and NBC that allows people to view its stories on the Internet via

Copies of "The Great Back Debate," along with interactive features such as online polls and audio clips, are available


  • "The Great American Back Debate." Newsweek, April 26, 2004.


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