Chiropractors treat a wide variety of conditions but the number one problem we see and the one most associated with chiropractic is back pain. According to the ACA, nearly 80% of people will have some type of back pain at some point in their lives. So it may come as no surprise that it is right behind upper respiratory infections when it comes to the most common reason for doctor’s visits. A majority of these cases are from mechanical causes as opposed to non serious conditions such as fracture, infection, cancer, etc.
What Causes it? First, let’s take a closer look at the back. It is made up of the vertebrae, the joints between the vertebrae, the nerves, the numerous ligaments and muscles and the disc between each vertebra. All of these structures can be damaged in one way or another whether it is a fracture of the bone, arthritis or inflammation of the joint, inflammation of the nerve, a sprained ligament, a strained muscle or a ruptured or herniated disc (discs can even have small tears that affect their integrity). These injuries can occur due to trauma, such as sports injuries or car accidents. But sometimes it is simple movements, such as bending over to pick something up, that can cause back pain. There is also poor posture, obesity and even stress that will cause or complicate back pain. In addition, certain diseases or conditions can create back pain, such as kidney stones, kidney infections, blood clots, bone loss, prostate conditions, etc.
Back pain can become an everyday thing for some people while others may experience it every couple of weeks or months. Sometimes the pain lasts a day or two while for others it seems to never completely go away, instead it just becomes less intense. The fact is that many people who suffer from back pain typically ride this roller coaster of intermittent pain that comes and goes and varies in intensity.
So Won’t the pain eventually go away on its own? It has been widely accepted, until recently, that back pain will simply “heal” on its own. However, researchers have learned that this is not truly the case, something chiropractors have always been aware of. One study looked at the available research on the history of low back pain. It showed that when back pain is not treated, it doesn’t go away on its own. It continues to affect people for long periods of time. Another study showed that in some cases, low back pain will go away temporarily but will most likely come back. It demonstrated that only 9% of those who had back pain for more than 30 days were pain free 5 years later.
Why does the pain come back? Our bodies are incredibly sophisticated machines that we as chiropractors believe has an innate intelligence capable of doing amazing things. One of those is its ability to adapt. I’m sure you’ve noticed that when you or someone you know has back pain, there is a tendency to move, sit or even walk differently. This is usually to help get out of pain or create less pain. These are the things you can see but your body is also making minor adjustments as well that you might not notice. Muscles might contract and relax differently, your body may be releasing different chemicals, such as cortisol, to help avoid or decrease the pain. The point is that your body adapts to and works around the pain most of the time without you even noticing it. Even the movements you make to avoid pain can become normal for you and most of the time it works and you feel ok. However, there is a point at which you reach a threshold where your body is unable to cope or work around the pain. It is at this point that you do something as simple as bend over to pick a pencil off the ground and the pain is right back. If left untreated the pain may go away again as you start to move a little more carefully and your body begins to adapt again. But most of the time you eventually reach that threshold again and repeat the cycle, riding the roller coaster of pain.
What can be done about it? Low back pain is often the symptom of mechanical dysfunction in your spine that we as chiropractors are trained to address. Some people may prefer to simply cover up the symptoms with pain medications but we prefer to fix the problem, like taking the rock out of the shoe instead of covering up the pain it is causing. Many chiropractic patients with relatively long-lasting or recurring back pain feel improvement shortly after starting chiropractic treatment. Many times, the relief they feel after a month of treatment is greater than after seeing a family physician. It is a safe and effective treatment that can reduce pain, decrease medication and can stop the pain roller coaster. So the next time you reach that threshold and the pain comes back, instead of ignoring it and waiting for it to go away on its own, set up an appointment to see a chiropractor. You’ll be glad you did.
Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Engberg M, Lauritzen T, Bruun NH, Manniche C. The course of low-back pain in a general population. Results from a 5-year prospective study. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2003 May;26(4):213-9.
Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Manniche C. Low-back pain: what is the long-term course? A review of studies of general patient populations. Eur Spine J 2003 Apr;12(2):149-65.
Stig LC, Nilsson O, Leboeuf-Yde C. Recovery pattern of patients treated with chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy for long-lasting or recurrent low back pain. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2001 May;24(4):288-91.
Nyiendo J, Haas M, Goodwin P. Patient characteristics, practice activities, and one-month outcomes for chronic, recurrent low-back pain treated by chiropractors and family medicine physicians: a practice-based feasibility study. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2000 May;23(4):239-45.
Time to recognize value of chiropractic care? Science and patient satisfaction surveys cite usefulness of spinal manipulation. Orthopedics Today February 2003;23(2):14-15.