Back pain relief without surgery or drugs

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Back pain relief without surgery or drugs. Ali Gorman, Registered Nurse reports during Action News at 11 p.m. on May 10, 2017. (WPVI)

There's a revolution underway in treating back pain. Methods that used to be considered fringe are moving into the mainstream, because of research showing that they can perform better than medication.

Back pain is one of the main reasons people see a doctor. In the U.S. it accounts for more than 24 million visits a year.

But before you ask your physician for a prescription drug to ease the pain, Consumer Reports says a more "hands-on" approach could help you find some relief.

For 71-year-old Thomas Sells, a typical week may include acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, and a couple hours with a massage therapist. But he's not taking trips to the spa - these are treatments for his severe back pain.

"So, I think over the years the pain began to exacerbate before I began to do anything about it," said Sells.

By 2009, Sells' backaches had gotten so bad he could barely walk.

He searched for treatment, but was worried about the risks of an opioid medication such as Vicodin or Percocet, and didn't want surgery. That's when he turned to his Veteran Affairs center.

"When I learned that there were alternatives, I was very willing to try them. There was positive results," said Sells.

In a Consumer Reports survey of over 3,500 back pain sufferers nationwide, it found more than 80-percent of those who had tried yoga or tai chi, or saw a massage therapist or chiropractor said it helped them.

"Traditionally, these non-drug therapies had been considered alternative or complementary to mainstream medicine. But the truth is we're seeing from the evidence that they work just as well, if not better," said Teresa Carr from Consumer Reports.

"The non-drug therapies has allowed my life to have a very positive outlook. I am very grateful," said Sells.

But Consumer Reports' survey also turned up something else - insurers are far more likely to cover prescription drugs and doctor visits than non-drug treatments like yoga, acupuncture and massage.

Still, you may have a better chance at getting some of these covered if you first get a referral from your healthcare provider.

Consumer Reports says yoga and tai chi are fine for short-term pain if you are familiar with the moves. If not, wait until the pain eases so that you can walk and move reasonably comfortably.

This follows the recommendations from the American College of Physicians. In February, the group said non-drug measures, including physical therapy, heat, acupuncture and massage, should be the first line of treatment for back pain before resorting to medications.

More information from Consumer Reports

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