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Why are you Treating Back Pain with a Pill

By Dr. Scott Rosenthal

I once heard a comedian say, "I’m sooo upset! My muffler just fell off my car and now I have to go buy a louder stereo." The joke makes a point that can be well applied to American health care. We spend the majority of our resources trying to mask (ignore) symptoms instead of fixing the underlying problem.

The issues arising from the misdirected focus of treating symptoms is best illustrated when it comes to back pain. The standard medical approach consists of pain medication (either swallowed or injected) and is failing miserably to solve the third most costly condition facing our society and a leading cause of disability throughout the world. Add in the fact that 59 percent of all people receiving highly addictive opioids have the complaint of back pain, and you can begin to appreciate the terrible price being paid in human suffering and dollars.

Let’s talk about your back. Your spinal system is a mechanical marvel. Layers of muscles course in multiple directions. Ligaments and tendons attach 24 uniquely-shaped bones that fit together like a suspended puzzle. The column forms a hollow core designed to encase your brain as it stems into the upper neck and continues down as your spinal cord. Discs connect each of the bones, absorb shock and work as a team to allow for movement. When all is in harmony, there is strength and flexibility. Most importantly, your central nervous system is given adequate protection and your nerve roots exit freely through the openings between your spinal bones. Vital nervous system communication flows from the brain cell to the tissue cell and from the tissue cell to the brain. Clarity in this system directly relates to how well your body functions and heals.

There is no doubt that pain is unpleasant and can be downright debilitating. I am not trying to downplay or trivialize it, but want to shed light on a failed treatment model that sees the pain as the problem. Back pain is an alarm that your body uses to signal when damage has occurred. As a doctor of chiropractic, I am deeply concerned about a person’s pain, but focused more on what is causing it. I look specifically at all the structures involved and determine what corrective measures need to be taken. Once the underlying mechanical problem is addressed, the body no longer sounds the alarm and pain is eliminated (naturally).

There are consequences of treating back pain with medicines that should be carefully considered beyond potential adverse drug reactions and addiction that can occur. By chemically removing the pain, the underlying mechanical problem is left to persist and worsen.

Additionally, drugs may allow enough time to pass for the body to fall into a state of compensation (when the muscles and connective tissues adapt to the underlying problem). At this point, the person may no longer feel pain, but the actual problem remains. Without symptoms, the condition can worsen for months or years resulting in an episode of intensified pain and greater mechanical severity (which may include irreversible arthritic degeneration).

I'm sure some of you are thinking that there are exceptions. You are right! Depending on the severity and circumstances, taking pain medication may be absolutely necessary. Regardless, I urge all to consider addressing the underlying mechanical cause and see a chiropractor. You don't have to choose and can do both concurrently. I often tell my patients that I am grateful for the medications when needed, but even happier when they are no longer necessary (which is a daily event in the office).

To summarize, back pain is often a sign of an underlying mechanical issue that can impact how well your nervous system functions—influencing your whole body’s level of health and wellbeing. Ignoring alarm signals is not a winning long term strategy and often leads to greater pain and increased treatment costs down the road. Chiropractors resolve back pain by correcting the underlying causes in a safe and natural manner. Please rethink what your back pain is telling you before it gets so bad that even the loudest stereo can't drown it out.