The use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), holistic therapies, integrated medicine, or whatever you choose to call that diverse group of health care practices and products not generally offered as part of conventional medicine, is on the rise. And spine and joint conditions (such as arthritis) are high on the list of reasons why people engage with this type of treatment.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) reports that in 2007, the National Health Interview Survey revealed back pain was by far the most common reason people used CAM, and neck pain was the second. Other muscle and joint conditions, such as arthritis, were also high on the list. Types of therapies commonly tried by people dealing with chronic pain included nutritional supplements, herbal therapy, massage, acupuncture, guided imagery, chiropractic treatment, yoga and more.
Related: Back Pain Statistics
Complementary medicine may feel nice, and some studies even suggest it can yield as good as or better than results as certain medical treatments for neck or back pain. But the age of medical research in the area of CAM has just begun, and we are far from knowing everything about how to apply CAM to the spine.
The marketplace abounds with holistic therapies that promise relief for your pain. But only a few -- generally speaking, the most well-known -- have passed the test of medical research. Mind you, the term "passing the test of medical research" refers to an ongoing process. New studies are done all the time that help researchers and practitioners to hone their understanding of what’s safe and effective for your back, but this is not completed all at once. So while research studies have shed some light on the effectiveness of CAM therapies, we by no means know everything at the current time.
Just the same, for a safe and cost-effective foray into the world of CAM therapies for your back, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the research findings in this area.
Natural Remedies for Back Pain - What the Research Says
Though little is confirmed, here is what we do know about the most commonly used CAM therapies for pain.
Reviews of studies show that acupuncture, massage and spinal manipulation may be beneficial to management of chronic low back pain.
Related: Is Chiropractic For You?
NCCAM also says that the American College of Physicians/American Pain Society recommends the above therapies as well as five other non-drug approaches to treating back pain, should medication, education and self-care not work. The other approaches they recommend are: cognitive-behavioral therapy, exercise therapy, progressive relaxation, intensive interdisciplinary rehabilitation and yoga. Although NCCAM doesn’t mention yoga’s value for chronic low back pain management in the context of medical research studies, recently there have been some studies that found a connection.
As we move out to the “fringe”, or the less well-known CAM therapies, the few studies that have been done found either mixed or little to no evidence of effectiveness for chronic low back pain. Some CAM therapies included in this group include herbal remedies and prolotherapy injections.
Studies done on several types of acupuncture for arthritis found that this treatment may yield a small improvement in pain and functioning. The studies done may have included spinal arthritis, but were not limited to that type.
Manual therapy (mainly chiropractic manipulation and mobilization given by a physical therapist) is recommended in clinical guidelines as a treatment for chronic neck pain. Even so, NCCAM warns that medical research studies done so far show only mixed evidence for the benefits of manual therapy for chronic neck pain. The same is true for acupuncture.
As far as other types of CAM for neck or back pain, many people try hypnotherapy, meditation, qu gong, magnets and more. What does the research say about these therapies? For the most part, more research is needed, although some studies do suggest they may be helpful. The one exception is magnets for pain. Research does not support this therapy.
The good news is that if your favorite CAM therapy isn’t on my short list here, over time you may see it entered. As I mentioned before, new research studies on CAM for back pain are done regularly and over time, we should know a lot more about how best to use holistic medicine for your back.
NCCAM Chronic Pain and CAM: At a Glance. NCCAM website. Accessed July 2012. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/pain/chronic.htm