Many Alternative Therapies for Back Pain Not Covered

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has confirmed what many back pain sufferers already know: Public and private health insurance plans often do not cover non-drug alternative pain therapies.

Bloomberg researchers looked at dozens of Medicaid, Medicare and commercial insurance coverage policies for chronic lower back pain and found that while most plans covered physical therapy and chiropractic care, there was little or no coverage for acupuncture, massage or counseling.

"This study reveals an important opportunity for insurers to broaden and standardize their coverage of non-drug pain treatments to encourage their use as safer alternatives to opioids," says senior author Caleb Alexander, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School.  

Alexander and his colleagues examined 15 Medicaid, 15 Medicare Advantage and 15 major commercial insurer plans that were available in 16 states in 2017.

Most payers covered physical therapy (98%), occupational therapy (96%), and chiropractic care (89%), but coverage was inconsistent for many of the other therapies.

Acupuncture was covered by only five of the 45 insurance plans and only one plan covered therapeutic massage.

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Nine of the Medicaid plans covered steroid injections, but only three covered psychological counseling.

"We were perplexed by the absence of coverage language on psychological interventions," Alexander says. "It's hard to imagine that insurers wouldn't cover that."  

Even for physical therapy, a well-established method for relieving lower back pain, insurance coverage was inconsistent.

"Some plans covered two visits, some six, some 12; some allowed you to refer yourself for treatment, while others required referral by a doctor," Alexander says. "That variation indicates a lack of consensus among insurers regarding what model coverage should be, or a lack of willingness to pay for it.”  

The Bloomberg study is being published online in the journal JAMA Network Open.  It was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, but there is surprisingly little consensus on the best way to treat it. A recent series of reviews by an international team of experts in The Lancet medical journal found that low back pain is usually treated with bad advice, inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” said lead author Rachelle Buchbinder, PhD, a professor at Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

The authors recommend counseling, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy as first-line treatments for short-term low back pain, followed by spinal manipulation, massage, acupuncture, meditation and yoga as second line treatments. They found limited evidence to support the use of opioids for low back pain, and epidural steroid injections and acetaminophen (paracetamol) are not recommended at all.

Learning About Back Pain Helps Reduce It

By Steve Weakley

A new study published in JAMA Neurology shows that learning about the neuroscience of pain may help relieve some of it. 

Researchers have long understood that pain sensitivity varies from patient to patient, and there is a complex relationship between the mind and the body that influences how we experience pain. To explore that connection, researchers in Belgium divided 120 patients with chronic back and neck pain into two groups. A control group was treated with commonly recommended physical therapy and exercises.

The second group went through a program of “neuroscience education therapy,” in which they were given a very detailed explanation of what happens to the nervous system during chronic pain. Patients learned how neurons and synapses work, and how pain signals travel through nerve fibers, to the spinal cord and then the brain.

They were also taught the importance of self-care, ergonomics, stretching and fitness.

The patients were then given a series of challenging movements and exercises that gradually became more difficult and painful. They were encouraged to push through their pain, continue exercising and concentrate on functionality, not pain relief.

Treatment in both groups lasted three months, and the patients were re-evaluated after six months and a year. 

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Researchers say patients in the neuroscience therapy group showed markedly more progress than the control group.  They had significant improvement in their disability, a higher pain threshold, improved physical and mental functioning, and 50 percent less self-reported pain than the control group. That improvement continued even after one year.

“These positive effects can be attributed to the content of the experimental treatment as participants learn to put pain into the right perspective, to move regularly, and to be physically active. Consequently, participants probably feel empowered, whereas, previously, they viewed pain as a life-controlling factor,” researchers found.  

“The main message is: Don’t be afraid of the pain,” lead author Anneleen Malfliet told The New York Times. “We know that worrying and giving attention to pain ultimately increases it. Staying active and moving is better than rest when it comes to chronic back and neck pain.”

Low back pain is the most common cause of disability worldwide and it is the most often cited reason for missed work in the United States.  More than half of all working Americans experience back pain each year.

Physical Therapy for Back Pain Lowers Healthcare Costs

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you have lower back pain and get it treated with physical therapy first, you are significantly less likely to later need opioid medication or high cost medical services, according to a new study in Health Services Research.

Researchers at the University of Washington and George Washington University analyzed health insurance claims for over 50 million people from 2009 to 2013, tracking patients who had a new diagnosis of lower back pain.

Compared with patients who saw a physical therapist later or not at all, those who saw a physical therapist first had an 89% lower probability of having an opioid prescription, a 28% lower probability of having an MRI or advanced imaging, and a 15% lower probability of having an emergency department visit. Their healthcare costs were also significantly lower for out-patient care, pharmacy and out-of-pocket expenses.

“We found important relationships among physical therapy intervention, utilization, and cost of services and the effect on opioid prescriptions," said co-author Ken Harwood, PT, a professor of physical therapy at George Washington University.

One unexpected finding is that patients who had physical therapy first had a 19% greater chance of being hospitalized.

“Having an in-patient hospitalization is not necessarily a bad outcome for a patient. PTs (physical therapists) provide care that aims to resolve LBP (lower back pain) by addressing musculoskeletal causes first, but if the problem does not get resolved, PTs may refer patients appropriately for more specialized care,” the study found.

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One out of every four Americans will experience at least one day of lower back pain every three months. Researchers say about half will be treated with opioid medication, while physical therapy (12%), exercise (19%) and psychological therapy (8%) will be recommended far less often.    

"Given our findings in light of the national opioid crisis, state policymakers, insurers, and providers may want to review current policies and reduce barriers to early and frequent access to physical therapists as well as to educate patients about the potential benefits of seeing a physical therapist first," said lead author Bianca Frogner, PhD, a professor and health economist at the University of Washington Center for Health Workforce Studies.

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, affecting about 540 million people at any given time. But there is little consensus on the best way to treat it.

A recent series of reviews appearing in The Lancet medical journal found that lower back pain is usually treated with inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” said lead author Professor Rachelle Buchbinder of Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

4 P’s That Can Help Lower Pain Levels

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

Having lived with chronic pain for 21 years -- with diagnoses such as arthritis, TMJ disorder, endometriosis, hypothyroid, ischemia, seizures, reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) and thoracic outlet syndrome -- I know what life with a chronic condition is like.

I have tried many different treatment options, yet still have not found “the cure.” That doesn’t mean I have stopped looking. As part of my continuing alphabet series on alternative pain treatments, this month I am covering 4 P’s of pain management: physical therapy, pain medications, prolotherapy and psychology. 

Physical Therapy

Also known as PT and physiotherapy, physical therapy uses movement through manual therapy, exercise, and electro-therapy to improve range of motion, mobility, function and daily living.

Used incorrectly, physical therapy can be harmful. It is very important to get a physical therapist that understands your health condition, knows when to push you and when to hold you back, and can teach you exercises you can learn to do independently.

A good physical therapist will do research on your condition and help educate you about your body’s limits and potential for improvement. They will also be in regular contact with your doctor and other healthcare providers.

Due to insurance practices in the United States, the number of physical therapy sessions is often limited and rarely lasts throughout a chronic illness. But many of the techniques can be continued at home on the patient’s time, once they learn how to do them properly.

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When I first started physical therapy, I did all of the wrong exercises because my therapist didn’t know or understand the conditions I have. My mentality at the time was no pain no gain, so we both over-worked me. It made things far worse than if had I done nothing in the first place.

Once I was with the right physical therapist, I began to see improvements in my daily function. We learned together it wasn’t about pushing my limits, but more about working as a team to find ways around the physical limitations I had.

Pain Medication

When the average person hears the words “pain medication” they often think about opioids. But there are a many different types of pain medication available, including medical cannabis, NSAIDs, benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants, alcohol, kratom, cox-2 inhibitors, and muscle relaxers.

Based on my speaking with medical professionals and researchers, I believe that all options -- including opioids -- should be on the table when a provider is deciding what is best for the patient.

I have heard from thousands of patients (of the millions who use opioids daily) who swear by two things. First, they have no other treatment option due to access or cost.  Second, there is no other treatment option that works as well as opioid medication.

I know that the evidence is weak on the long-term use of opioids. Every test, assessment and research study can be torn apart by opioid critics. But for me, it all comes down to this: If I have something that helps me function better and live a better quality of life, I want to have access to it. I have lost many friends to suicide due to uncontrolled pain and a few to addiction.

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Opioids are not typically the first line of treatment. More and more, due to insurance company policies, guidelines and legislation, pain patients will get acetaminophen or NSAIDs, or be given nerve blocks, spinal injections or some other invasive procedure. Opioid medications are far less prescribed than they used to be. And many patients can’t get them at all.

Doctors are now being taught in medical school that what they prescribe should be determined by the type of pain someone has. For neuropathic pain, they are taught that traditional analgesics are less effective. Therefore, many providers will prescribe tricyclic antidepressants and anticonvulsants for nerve pain. And they will use topical NSAIDs creams and ointments for muscle sprains and overuse injuries.

Prolotherapy

Prolotherapy is an injection-based treatment used for pain conditions that involve musculoskeletal disorders, such as low back pain, tendonitis and knee osteoarthritis.

The injection is typically administered where joints and tendons connect to bone.  In theory, the injection creates an irritation to the injured area that helps stimulate healing. This technique that has been practiced since Roman times, when they used hot needles on gladiator injuries to promote healing.

Patients may report mild pain and irritation at the injection site, which usually goes away within 72 hours. They also may report numbness or minor bleeding right after the injection. There have been cases of disc and spinal injuries reported.

I used to hear a lot about prolotherapy 10-15 years ago, but I hear less and less about it now, as it is not typically used to treat nerve diseases. It is also not well reimbursed by insurance companies and Medicare has decided not to cover prolotherapy injections for low back pain at all.

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Psychology

Psychology is used to help prevent the reliving of psychological distress or dysfunction, and to promote positive thoughts, well-being and personal skills. Psychology should not to be confused with psychiatry, which is the medical specialty devoted to the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of mental disorders.

I have undergone psychological counseling in both group and individual settings over the years. The time when I found it most helpful was before I finally got a proper diagnosis of RSD and started infusion therapy. At the time, I was beginning to feel like a guinea pig. Some providers didn’t know what to do with me and having a psychologist providing support and making sure my mental attributes were strong was very helpful. 

I still use some of the mindfulness techniques he taught me to this day. When I was getting ready for infusion therapy, I felt like I had tried every treatment available on earth. Having a professional psychologist to speak with and go over what happens if the infusion didn’t work prepared me for a worst-case outcome.

Luckily, I didn’t need it, but it did teach me that even though I felt like I had tried everything, there are always new options being created and that I had not actually tried everything.

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This is one of the reasons I am so sure that the alternative treatments I have been presenting over the last 8 months are helpful to others. I never realized until I did the research that there are so many different things to try. Using a multi-modal approach to pain and understanding that the mind, body and spirit connection are real is important not to neglect.

There were times when my providers suggested that I go to a psychologist, and other times when I had to get psychological clearance for different procedures. I found that when I went to a session, I felt better about myself. It was "me time" -- a time to focus on getting through the depression and anxiety of living with a chronic illness.

I learned that chronic pain affects our brains and causes depression and anxiety, and that it was not the other way around. That there are tools and medications to address them, and that knowing myself and what is going on with my health was one of the best ways to get past the depression and anxiety.

Psychologists gave me aptitude tests to check my general knowledge, verbal skills, memory, attention, reasoning, and perception. A few also gave me personality and neuropsychological tests. The more I learned about myself, the better I was able to navigate through chronic illness, the people around me, and the better relationships I was able to achieve.

I once again look forward to reading your comments. What treatments have you tried, what has worked, and what didn’t work? What tips do you have to pass on to other readers? Have you found the treatment protocol that works for you?

I personally don’t believe that there is a magic pill or procedure that can cure chronic pain - yet. I also strongly believe that the patient and their providers should be making the decisions for what is best for the patient.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

How to Successfully Use Manual Therapy with EDS

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

There are two types of physical therapy to consider. The traditional type includes ice, hot packs, ultrasound and exercises. With this type, the physical therapist is not touching you.

But for those of us living with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), the second type of physical therapy, called manual therapy, is much safer. You lie on a table for a hands-on approach, and the physical therapist has specific techniques to reduce the muscles spasms and realign the bones through touching the patient. It’s similar, but not the same as massage or a chiropractic adjustment.

In EDS sufferers, when our muscles go into spasm, we feel a lot of discomfort and pain, and our joints can shift out of position, causing what is called subluxations.

Even simple tasks like sleeping in a bad position or picking up groceries can cause this. Our poor muscles spasm easily because they are overworked from taking on the job of our ligaments and tendons, which are weakened by our collagen disorder.

We need to realign the joints and return them to their correct position, which then reduces the muscle spasms.

When this is done by a manual physical therapist or chiropractor, then exercising will not hurt so much. Treatment of the muscles repositions the joints and calms the muscle spasms down.

But you also need to understand that your muscles will return to those spasms if another step is not taken after manual therapy.

You need to do specific exercises to strengthen the muscles that were causing the problem. If you just put the joint back into position without strengthening the muscles around it, you will leave the joints weak and susceptible to the same forces that could pull them back out again. If you strengthen the muscles, the joints will not shift out of position so easily. The exercises should begin as soon as the manual therapy appointment is over.

Also, when you have any cranial or myofascial release work done, the process literally puts your muscles into a calmer, sleeping mode. Before leaving the office, you need to reactivate and wake those muscles back up or you will find your joints will potentially slip back out again.

I went to manual therapy for years and never understood why I kept slipping right apart. I would walk out feeling so relaxed and calm and then, sometimes in the car ride home, things would start to shift out of position. Now I take a few minutes to wake up and reactivate the muscles and find the body will hold much longer.

This is a simple procedure that your provider should be able to show you how to do. It makes all the difference in the world. I recommend Kevin Muldowney’s book, Living Life to the Fullest with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome for proper guidance on these exercises.

Strengthening the muscles is a must after manual therapy or the spasms will return. If you fail to discipline yourself and do your exercises, you can’t expect your provider to develop and assist you in executing a successful treatment plan.

It reminds me of the time my neck was fused. On day three in the hospital, I received an email of instructions from my surgeon. He clearly stated that he had now accomplished his job with the surgery and it was up to me to get out of bed, start walking, and take on the responsibility of helping myself heal and strengthen. It is often difficult for us to accept that we bear the lion's share of the responsibility in any successful treatment plan, but we do!

Ellen Lenox Smith suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. Ellen and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana, visit their website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Insurers Should Cover All Types of Pain Treatment

By Cindy Perlin, Guest Columnist

Many chronic pain patients who have depended on opioids to manage their pain have posted comments critical of the CDC's draft guidelines and rightfully so.  No patient who is in severe chronic pain should be required to reduce their pain medication unless and until they have been provided with access to treatment that is at least as effective as their current opioid regimen.

Efforts to reduce use of opioids have driven legitimate pain patients to use of heroin and have not stemmed the opioid abuse epidemic. In fact, addiction and overdoses have only increased. 

Preventing addiction is the key to saving lives. The best way to do this is to reduce the number of new prescriptions for opioids unnecessarily dispensed to pain patients. Fortunately, curtailing opioid prescriptions can be done without harm to pain patients because safer, more effective treatments exist.

However, significant barriers to access to alternative pain treatments exist. Financial obstacles because of lack of insurance coverage, inadequate availability of services, and lack of knowledge of alternatives by both patients and their physicians prevent patients from receiving the most appropriate care. 

A significant factor that has led to inadequate availability of many pain treatments is the fact that non-physician in-network providers who are reimbursed by health insurers have not, for the most part, received any fee increases in over 35 years; whereas physicians have received numerous increases. These providers include chiropractors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and mental health practitioners.

Availability of these services has decreased as more providers are leavingand fewer providers are entering these disciplines, because of a 65% decline in real wages owing to inflation.

To reduce these impediments to effective pain treatment, I propose a Pain Treatment Parity Act (PTPA), which would require all entities that pay for treatment of chronic pain -- including public and private insurers -- to cover all pain treatments that have credible evidence of effectiveness to the same degree that they cover pharmaceutical treatment of pain.

This includes both qualitative and quantitative limitations on care, such as equivalence in pre-treatment authorization requirements, limits on number of visits or dosage restrictions, copayment requirements, as well as equivalent fee schedules.

Provisions of the PTPA

1. All pain treatments with some credible evidence of effectiveness must be covered when provided by a licensed or certified provider. This includes any treatments with at least one well-designed randomized, controlled trial showing a significant benefit from the therapy and a good safety profile or any other reasonable evidence of safety and effectiveness.

Therapies that currently meet this standard include chiropractic, physical and occupational therapy, acupuncture, biofeedback, massage therapy, homeopathy, nutritional counseling and supplements, herbal therapy, psychotherapy, energy medicine therapy, supervised exercise programs, and multidisciplinary interventions, including coordination of services.

2. There can be no restrictions on the number of treatment visits or length of treatment for nonpharmaceutical pain treatment, unless there are similar restrictions on dosage or length of treatment for the preponderance of pharmaceutical treatments for pain.

3. Copays for visits to nonphysician pain treatment providers cannot exceed the copayment for primary care physician visits.

4. There cannot be a separate deductible for nonphysician pain treatment providers.

5. Preauthorization for visits to nonphysician pain treatment providers cannot be required unless preauthorization is required for pharmaceutical treatments for pain.

6. Medical necessity reviews cannot occur with greater frequency for nonphysician pain treatment providers than for physicians who provide pharmaceutical treatment for pain.

7. Fee schedules for in-network chiropractors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, social workers, mental health counselors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and all other nonphysician pain treatment providers must be increased by the same percentage as the average increase in fees for physicians for all specialties since 1980.

8. If an insurance plan has out-of-network benefits for medical and surgical treatments, it must also cover nonphysician out-of-network pain care providers at the same level of reimbursement.

9. All medical schools must offer a required course in pain management that covers all currently available treatments and the evidence supporting their use.

10. All physicians who treat chronic pain patients who have not completed a course in pain management in medical school must complete a 12-hour CME course about the safety and efficacy of all currently available treatments for chronic pain.

The Centers for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) should champion this or similar legislation along with its opioid prescribing guidelines.

Cindy Perlin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, certified biofeedback practitioner, chronic pain survivor and the author of “The Truth About Chronic Pain Treatments: The Best and Worst Strategies for Becoming Pain Free.” 

For the last 25 years Cindy has helped her clients improve their emotional and physical well-being through her private practice near Albany, New York.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

How I Use Exercise to Manage Chronic Pain

By Fred Kaeser, Guest Columnist

My dilemma may not be yours. I can only speak for myself. But when my intermittent severe pain became everyday severe pain, I felt I had a choice to make. Find a doctor that would prescribe me enough opioids everyday so that my horrible pain could be reduced considerably… or…decide that the risks of using opioids on a regular, constant basis outweigh the benefits.

When making this risk-benefit analysis, I needed to explore as best I could the empirical evidence on both sides of the opioid debate. Just as important, I needed to look at the evidence concerning alternative pain management strategies such as exercise, physical therapy, nutrition, yoga, mindfulness visualizations, and the like.

I am 63 years old and am in severe pain on an everyday basis. I have severe cervical spinal stenosis, multiple osteophytes impinging on my thecal cord, severe spondylosis, and multiple discs that have been severely compromised. I have osteoarthritis throughout my body. My hips have been replaced and one will need revision surgery fairly soon. My knees are shot. My lumbar spine is not as bad as my cervical, but multiple discs are herniated, the stenosis is in the moderate range.

I have crawled around on the floor many times for days and even weeks at a time since I was 25. I also have intermittent, but infrequent bouts of intercostal neuralgia, where it feels like the left side of my ribs are on fire. But without question, my cervical spine is the worst of them all.

      fred kaeser

      fred kaeser

I was determined to be an educated consumer in my quest to relieve pain, but time was of the essence. It’s brutal being in constant severe pain. It not only hurts, it’s exhausting. Fighting the hurt, trying to stay positive, trying to do your daily stuff, trying to be friendly, just trying to smile becomes harder and harder. .

I had done enough periodic trials of opioids to know several things. They work. But then at a certain point they don’t work as well. Even upping the dosage works for only so long. I can take an opioid for breakthrough pain or an extended release opioid, but the weird haze I’d get, the strange cloudy, foggy feelings I have, I never felt normal doing them.

I mean, is that what I want to feel like for years to come? I hate the pain, but the opioid cloud from any extended use I hate also. And the risks: tolerance, dependence, respiratory distress, sexual disruption, and constipation. That last one can be a bitch. I didn’t want to live in pain. but I didn’t want the risks and that overall crap feeling that opioids presented me. So the search for alternative pain therapies was on.

Let me first say I had to have the right attitude. “Stinkin-thinkin” is out, or as my meditation expert friend says, “If you “awful-ize” regularly you will feel awful.” I cannot emphasize enough the benefit of staying upbeat. I’m not stupid, I get it. You feel horrible, you feel like crap, you want to crawl out of your skin. But I have a choice; get swallowed up in negative thoughts and that is where I’ll stay, or stay as positive as I can and that is where I’ll stay. Not easy by any means, but it is the only means for me.

I was always athletic but I smoked. Smoked from 24 years of age to 56. That had to stop. When I had my second hip replacement I said I would quit right as I entered the hospital. I did and I could write a book on that fun trip.

I knew my diet would have to change. Didn’t want anymore extra weight and I knew I needed to increase my intake of foods that reduce inflammation. I love hot peppers, love those oily fish, those greens like spinach, kale, collard greens, those whole grains, and those almonds (but gotta watch the calories).

It took hard work to stop smoking and change my diet. And there was still a whole bunch more to come. I wanted to exercise more, I wanted to do my physical therapy exercises and stretches regularly, I wanted to give basic yoga posturing a try, I wanted to do some sort of meditation/positive visualizing practice.

I had read about all the benefits these could offer and I also knew it wouldn’t come quick. THIS IS THE HARD PART. I knew I would have to stick with it. I know too many people who say they’re going to make changes in their health status and do not stick with it. They’re in abundance after all those New Year’s resolutions every January, right? I’ve been one of them any number of times! It’s much easier to stop all the hard work and a whole lot easier to just take the pills.

But not this time. I knew that if my chosen alternative pain strategies were to work, I would have to be loyal to them and I would have to give them time. A lot of time, like 3-6 months of everyday, regular time. I have a family, I was working, I had all the stuff that comes with life, and now I had to fit a bunch more things in. I had to get up earlier than before, I had to spend an hour and half to two hours at night after work doing things I hadn’t before, and I had to fit these things into my weekends as well.

My Exercise Regimen

I had a YMCA membership and it’s amazing how many free or very low cost add-ons they provide. Yoga was free. Fairly low cost trainer sessions. My insurance covered a certain amount of physical therapy. A colleague-friend at work was a meditation expert. I get a lot of free senior citizen exercise and healthy activity benefits from the town I live in.

I started an exercise regimen that included cardiopulmonary exercise, weight training, and core exercise. I do an hour and half a day, 6 days a week. The myriad PT exercises and stretches I learned had to be done every day, 7 days a week as well. I don’t do all I know every time, but I usually spend about 20 minutes to a half hour on these.

The meditation/visualization I do is a form of guided imagery. Real easy to learn and real calming to do. I conjure peaceful, beautiful images for a 15 minute period in the morning and before bed I do 15 minutes of a mindfulness type experience where I am aware of positive thoughts, feelings, and images. I try to put my pain into a corner and focus on just the other things.

The yoga may give me the most benefits. I just do poses and stretches. I incorporate most of them in my daily workout routine and at times combine them with my PT work. All nothing real fancy, or too in-depth, but just enough of the basics to really help.

I lost count how many times I would bitch and complain in the beginning. How many times did I feel all this stuff was a waste? How many times would I curse them? How many times my pain hurt when I did them? How many times was my pain worse right after them? How many times did I want to give up? How many times did I want to just take the opioids? The answers: MANY!

A month went by…two months…three months…and I started to actually feel better. My pain was being mitigated. Six months and they worked even better. And now, almost 7 years later, they work better than ever. And my opioids? I am prescribed oxycodone, but I only take it every other day or every two days. I try to allocate myself no more than 10 pills a week.

Do I still have pain? Yep. Do the opioids help? Yep. In fact, when I take them they work as effectively as the first day I started taking them. I know I could easily do more and, considering the level of pain I have, they are easily warranted. But my pain is mitigated by my alternative pain management and my opioid use is minimized.

Just as important, there has been another benefit. The cervical spine surgery that I should be eligible for I don’t have to do because my functioning is normal. You don’t do this surgery unless your functionality suffers considerably.  Removing 2-3 discs, shaving down multiple osteophytes, and fusing 3-4 vertebras pose considerable post-op risks and perhaps even more pain. I’ve been told that my function is so good because of all the exercises I do, so no surgery for now.

Like I said, I can only speak for myself. But I have found a very effective balance to mitigating my pain through alternative pain management and the limited use of opioids. I still have pain every day but I manage it with a lot of hard work.

I know there are many people out there that must take opioids every day. And they should be provided with them. But I felt that I would be cheating myself if I didn’t do my best to mitigate my pain through alternative means.

I always have to be honest with myself. Am I doing all I can to ease my pain other than by taking opioid medication?

Fred Kaeser, Ed.D, is the former Director of Health for the NYC Public Schools. He taught at New York University and is the author of "What Your Child Needs to Know About Sex (and When): A Straight Talking Guide for Parents." Fred enjoys exercising, perennial gardens, and fishing.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. 

Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Physical Therapy vs. Surgery for Spinal Stenosis

By Pat Anson, Editor

Physical therapy works just as well as surgery in relieving pain and other symptoms of lumbar spinal stenosis in older patients, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh.

Their two year-year study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is believed to be the first that compares outcomes between surgery and physical therapy (PT) for spinal stenosis, a condition caused by narrowing of the spinal canal that causes pain, numbness and weakness in the lower back.  Decompression surgery to relieve pressure on spinal nerves has become a fast-growing intervention in today's older population.

"Probably the biggest point to put across to physicians, patients and practitioners is: Patients don't exhaust all of their non-surgical options before they consent to surgery. And physical therapy is one of their non-surgical options," said principal investigator Anthony Delitto, PhD, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy, University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Delitto, a physical therapist, was puzzled why some patients responded well to physical therapy  and others to surgery.

In his study, 169 patients aged 50 and older with spinal stenosis agreed to be randomly assigned to two groups: Those who would have decompression surgery and those who would have two standardized physical therapy sessions each week for six weeks.

In his study, 169 patients aged 50 and older with spinal stenosis agreed to be randomly assigned to two groups: Those who would have decompression surgery and those who would have two standardized physical therapy sessions each week for six weeks.

After both groups were re-examined at intervals of six months, one year and two years, the patient outcomes appeared to be about equal. There were no detectable differences between the groups in how their pain abated and the degree to which function was restored in their backs, buttocks and legs.

"The idea we had was to really test the two approaches head to head," said Delitto. "Both groups improved, and they improved to the same degree. Now, embedded in that, there are patients who did well in surgery, and patients who failed in surgery. There are patients who did well in PT, and there are patients who failed with PT. But when we looked across the board at all of those groups, their success and failure rates were about the same."

The research project also revealed issues surrounding physical therapy and the cost of co-pay – which apparently discourage some patients from continuing their treatment.

"One of the big things that we know held patients back from PT were co-payments," Dr. Delitto added. "Patients were on Medicare, and a lot of them were on fixed incomes. Some of those co-payments had to come out of pocket at $25, $30, $35 per visit. That adds up, and some of the patients just couldn't afford it."

Most patients didn't finish the PT regimen allowed under Medicare and one-third of the patients failed to complete even half of the regimen. About one in six didn't show for a single treatment, though they had agreed to consider physical therapy.