Considering David DePaolo’s article about the high costs and high rates of spine surgery, I thought it fitting to take a different look at solving this aching problem. How about managing back pain without the use of drugs or surgery? Given the drug abuse problem and the skyrocketing costs of surgery I think this piece about replacing doctors’ appointments with workouts might be worth some examination.
Back pain is a common ailment amongst Americans and surgeries are becoming an increasingly common solution. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2012 there were 177,580 nonfatal back injuries reported at work. We spend over $80 billion a year on back pain treatments, even though some specialists have said that less treatment yields better results. They point to data that says surgery or painkillers are often ineffective and might even prolong or worsen the pain.
Dr. Jerome Groopman is a Harvard cancer specialist who had first-hand experience with unsuccessful treatment. After several spinal fusion surgeries he still had pain, some days even worse than before his operations.
Dr. Richard Deyo, who studied back pain treatments at Oregon Health Sciences University, gives one possible reason that back surgeries are on the rise- MRI’s. These pictures are so detailed and vivid that sometimes those images can be misleading. Physicians might see a bulging disc and want to go in and fix it right away, even though that might not be the real cause of the pain. There are people who have scary-looking MRI scans even though they are pain free. Doctors are not focusing on the real cause of the pain, and sometimes fixing the symptoms is temporary or ineffective.
The article points to research indicating that the nervous system may play a bigger role in back pain than spine mechanics. Dr. James Rainville works at the New England Baptist Hospital and says that the nervous system affects the way we process information when we touch something. So for someone with back pain, a normal touch sensation translates to a painful sensation.
What can be done? Loads of prescription drugs or expensive surgeries?
What about “back pain boot camp”? This is a program designed by therapists who utilize exercises to strengthen and mobilize the back, while teaching their patients that it’s OK to move again. Many back patients are scared off of regular exercise because they are afraid one wrong move will put them out of commission. But oftentimes that lack of exercise or even just general movement makes the back less flexible and more prone to pain. They sacrifice the things they once loved like playing golf or picking up their grandchildren, because they are afraid of something painful happening.
“It’s learning not to fear the pain, learning that you can live with pain,” boot camp participant Janet Wertheimer says. “Understand what that pain is, but then put it aside.”
Groopman heard about this camp and was skeptical at first. After about nine months of training he says he is almost pain-free.
Maybe this kind of training isn’t the silver bullet. Maybe it won’t work for everyone or produce quite the same results that Wertheimer or Groopman benefitted from. But it seems like a cheaper, healthier, and much more pleasant alternative than a lifetime of pills or hospital rooms.