Out of the blue, your back starts to hurt. At first, it's just an annoyance. You can live with it. You've had lower back pain before and it went away on its own.
Now it's a few weeks later. You've got a low-grade pain that's not getting any better. You're actually worse, in fact, because your back hurts most of the time.
What to do?
You don't want to run to a doctor. After all, it's just back pain. Everybody has back pain. So you begin to solicit advice from your friends. And, of course, your friends have plenty of advice. "Do these exercises my doctor gave me." "Do these stretches - they worked for me." "Go to yoga class." "I know a great Pilates instructor. She'll get you in shape and your back will stop hurting." "Take vitamins and drink more water." "Meditate."
Your friends mean well and it's all very good advice. But none of it seems to work. Another month goes by and now the pain is increasing. It's even affecting your sleep.
It's time to see a doctor. But which one? For the most part, medical physicians are not experts on back pain. Typical recommendations include rest, moist heat, and anti-inflammatory medication.1,2 But, really, you've done all that. You need more specific advice.
Choices might include doctors of chiropractic, orthopedic surgeons, and physical therapists.
Many orthopedic surgeons are spinal specialists, but what they do is surgery. This would be a last resort, typically, after other treatment options have failed.
Physical therapists are highly skilled practitioners who focus on exercise, rehabilitation, and re-training. They are not primary care providers, and typically patients are referred to physical therapists by family physicians, chiropractors, and orthopedic surgeons.
Doctors of chiropractic are spinal specialists, too, and what chiropractors have to offer is expert conservative therapy.3 Chiropractors treat back-related problems all day, every day, and are the right doctor to see first.
As spinal specialists, chiropractors receive extensive training in evaluating patients with back pain. Chiropractors consider all aspects of the problem, and develop sound treatment plans based on the facts. If a person does not respond as anticipated, their chiropractor has a "Plan B" in place for further evaluation and possible referral.
When choosing a doctor, you're allowed to ask questions and participate in the process. The strategy for follow-up is critically important.
First, if you're improving and doing well, how will can you help keep the problem from recurring? Will your chiropractor prescribe stretches, exercises, and other self-care action steps to help you keep yourself well?
And, what steps will be taken if your problem and pain are not improving? Where might you be referred for further tests and evaluation? Chiropractic treatment is a powerful tool in most cases of back pain. Symptoms should begin to improve quickly. Have your chiropractor outline the "Plan B" if you are, in fact, not getting better.
Your doctor of chiropractic will be able to answer these questions.
1Zuhosky JP, et al: Industrial medicine and acute musculoskeletal rehabilitation. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 88(3 Suppl 1):S34-39, 2007.
2Cayea D, et al: Chronic low back pain in older adults. What physicians know, what they think they know, and what they should be taught. J Am Geriatr Soc 54(11):1772-1777, 2006.
3DeVocht JW: History and overview of theories and methods of chiropractic. Clin Orthop Relat Res 444:243-249, 2006.