Drug-free treatment is no pain-in-the-neck

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Neck pain will affect three in four Americans over the course of their lifetime. But rather than stocking up on pain killers, a new study in The Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that a regimen of gentle exercises at home, or sessions with a chiropractor, may actually be more effective than taking medication to relieve chronic neck pain.

Researchers split 272 patients, all of whom had neck pain with no known cause, into three groups: One group visited a chiropractor for 15 sessions lasting 20 minutes each, another group met with a physical therapist to learn gentle at-home neck exercises, and the third group was assigned pain relievers such as acetaminophen or narcotics. The patients were instructed to follow these regimens for three months. By the end of the study, 57 percent of those who saw a chiropractor, and 48 percent of the at-home exercise group, had at least a 75 percent reduction in their pain. These rates were significantly greater than the 33 percent of the medication group whose pain decreased. What s more, after a one year follow-up, about half of the patients in the chiropractor and exercise groups had maintained a 75 percent reduction in pain, compared to only 38 percent in the medication group.

ACSH's Dr. Ruth Kava is intrigued that the home exercises were just as effective as visiting a chiropractor. A lot of people swear by their chiropractors, she observes, but it s important to finally have this type of controlled study to compare that treatment with other options. And as one of the study authors notes, it s promising to find that other methods of treatment can be more effective than medication, since long-term use of medication can result in undesirable side effects.

But ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom would also like to caution readers who would interpret these results as an unconditional endorsement of chiropractic treatment. Just going to a chiropractor off the street and having them manipulate your neck is not without risk, he says. If you have a cervical herniated disc or other nerve compression and an X-ray of the area, even if taken, will not show this the wrong type of manipulation could do significant and permanent damage.