Hands-On Treatment Improves Chronic Low Back Pain, Reduces Medication Use

The numbers are staggering. More than 632 million people worldwide suffer from low back pain, and it is a leading cause of disability. According to the Institute of Medicine in the United States, one-third of all Americans suffer from chronic pain, which exceeds the number of people who are affected by heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined. This leads to an economic cost of medical care and lost productivity that totals more than $550 billion annually. With chronic low back pain being the frontrunner in these cases, it becomes clear why we are always looking for alternative approaches to reduce back pain and improve function. A new study suggests Osteopathic manipulation may modestly reduce symptoms for some people with chronic low back pain.

What is Osteopathic Manipulation Treatment (OMT) you might ask? One definition would say that it is a complementary form of treatment that looks at the whole body function and structure and by correcting structural dysfunction (realigning joints, relaxing muscles, etc.), stimulates healing. Osteopathy has its origins in the United States from a physician named A.T. Still in the 1880s, but is now taught across the world. The core principles of osteopathy are: 1) The body is a single unit, 2) Structure and function are interrelated and 3) The body has the natural ability to heal itself. Once an osteopath has determined the structural problems leading to pain, manipulation treatment involves moving out-of-line joints back into place, relaxing overused muscles and massaging soft tissue.

In one of the largest studies to evaluate Osteopathic treatment in the management of low back pain, researchers out of the University of North Texas recruited 455 patients to be randomized to receive osteopathic treatment or sham (fake) osteopathic manipulation for 6 treatment sessions over the course of 8 weeks. In the treatment group, >50% of patients reported >50% pain relief at the end of 12 weeks, whereas this was only observed in 30% of the sham group (which can be attributed to placebo effect). The greatest pain reductions were observed in patients experiencing the highest pain levels, which is also the patient population most likely to experience disability due to pain. As well, there was a significant reduction of medication use in the treatment group compared to the sham group.

This study, published in the Annals of Family Medicine in March 2013, confirms similar smaller studies that have looked at spinal manipulation in the treatment of low back pain. Prior studies have looked at osteopathy and chiropractic care in managing pain, both showing demonstrable improvements for patients in acute and chronic pain. The most important concept for a patient to understand about OMT is in its use. Osteopathic manipulation is a complementary treatment – unlikely to be the only thing to do for low back pain, but something that can work as an add-on therapy for people who don’t respond to painkillers alone, for example. It’s another tool in the toolbox; in addition to treatments like yoga, pilates, exercise, physical therapy, medications and injections, OMT can be a useful alternative to more invasive treatment in restoring a person’s function and reducing pain.

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