When he finally sought help, his doctor recommended acupuncture right off the bat. Northcutt ended up having six treatments over about eight months. Now, he says, "I don't have any back pain at all. I'm 100% good."
More than 26 million Americans ages 20 to 64 suffer from ongoing back pain, according to the American Pain Foundation, and it's one of the top reasons people visit a doctor. But many of those millions also discover the painful secret about back pain: This common condition can be surprisingly difficult to treat.
The lower back is a complex spot, with many potential sources of pain. Although surgery would seem to be a quick fix, in reality about 85% of people don't needand won't benefit fromback surgery, says Anders Cohen, MD, chief of neurosurgery at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, in New York City.
That leaves plenty of room for alternative and complementary therapies, such as vitamins, acupuncture, and chiropractic therapy, that may help soothe the pain. "If I don't see something unstable, something wrong with a disk or a bone, I use alternative therapies on a regular basis. It's a central crux of my practice," adds Dr. Cohen.
"There are some types of back pain that seem to be in the covering of the muscles or in the tissue connecting the muscle that are really difficult to treat," adds James Bray, MD, a sports medicine physician with Scott & White Healthcare, in Georgetown, Texas. "That's where a lot of alternative therapies [such as acupuncture and chiropractic therapy] really excel."
One of the first and most effective recourses for people with chronic back pain is acupuncture. "We've had great success with acupuncture. It's great for someone who gets pain that's situated in the back or neck and is not radiating down the arms and legs so much," says Dr. Cohen, who is a retired tennis pro. "I've had it myself, gotten up, and felt 75% better."
Practitioners of Eastern medicine say that acupuncture works by realigning the energy meridians and rebalancing the body. Western doctors don't really know why there's a benefit. Still, they find that it can help in many cases. "We don't have a correlate for that in Western medicine, but it seems to work," Dr. Cohen says. "We just don't have a Western explanation."