Oh, My Aching Back

Published January 1, 2004

While the human spine is a miracle of design, it is also unreliable.

If you are hearing [or reading] this message, you probably have suffered the agony of back pain. Eighty percent of Americans will battle the condition at some point in their lives, making it the No. 2 reason for doctor visits–after coughs and other respiratory infections.

Back pain costs this country more than $100 billion annually in medical bills, disability, and lost productivity at work. As long as we continue to lead overweight, sedentary, stressful lives, that cost is going to increase.

What’s most mysterious about back problems is the disconnection between the defect and pain. Unlike blood pressure and cholesterol, which can be easily measured, lower back pain has no objective measurement. The precise cause of pain usually remains unknown.

Imaging tests have found that two people with severe back trouble can lead remarkably different lives: one spends his days popping painkillers, while the other dances her way through life. The real question is why some people have a mild backache and some have really crippling pain.

Those with real pain want a quick fix. The result is a 77 percent increase in spinal-fusion surgery, at about $34,000 a pop … and it frequently does not work.

We’ve come to the point where we have to start thinking outside the box. We need to investigate more non-surgical alternatives like massage and acupuncture.

IT’S YOUR HEALTH is written by Conrad Meier, senior fellow in health policy at The Heartland Institute. This program is produced as a public service by Radio America. Meier passed away unexpectedly on March 18, 2005.