Low back pain (LBP) accounts for over 3 million emergency department visits per year in the United States alone. Worldwide, LBP affects approximately 84% of the general population, so eventually almost EVERYONE will have lower back pain that requires treatment! There is evidence dating back to the early Roman and Greek eras that indicates back pain was also very prevalent, and that really hasn’t changed. Some feel it’s because we are bipedal (walk on two legs) rather than quadrupedal (walk on four limbs). When comparing the two, degenerative disk disease and spinal osteoarthritis are postponed in the four-legged species by approximately two (equivalent) decades. But regardless of the reason, back pain is “the rule,” NOT the exception when it comes to patient visits to chiropractors and medical doctors. Previously, we looked at the surgical rate of low back pain by comparing patients who initially went to spinal surgeons vs. to chiropractors, and we were amazed! Remember? Approximately 43% of workers who first saw a surgeon had surgery compared to ONLY 1.5% of those who first saw a chiropractor! So, the questions this month are: How successful IS spinal surgery? What about all those patients who have had surgery but still have problems – can chiropractic still help them?
A review of the literature published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons showed that in most cases of degenerative disk disease (DDD), non-surgical approaches (like chiropractic care) are the most effective treatment choice. They report the success rate of spinal fusions for DDD is only 50-60%. The advent of artificial disks, which originally proposed to be a “cure” for symptomatic disk disease, has fared no better with possible worse long-term problems that are not yet fully understood. The authors of the review wrote, “Surgery should be the last option, but too often patients think of surgery as a cure-all and are eager to embark on it… Also, surgeons should pay close attention to the list of contraindications, and recommend surgery only for those patients who are truly likely to benefit from it.” Another study reported that, when followed for ten years following artificial disk surgery, a similar 40% of the patients treated failed and had a second surgery within three years! Similar findings are reported for post-surgical spinal stenosis as well as other spinal conditions.
So what about the success rate of chiropractic management for patients who have had low back surgery? In a 2012 article, three patients who had prior lumbar spinal fusions at least two years previous were treated with spinal manipulation (three treatments over three consecutive days) followed by rehabilitation for eight weeks. At the completion of care, all three (100%) had clinical improvement that were still maintained a year later. Another study reported 32 cases of post-surgical low back pain patients undergoing chiropractic care resulted in an average drop in pain from 6.4/10 to 2.3/10 (that means pain was reduced by 4.1 points out of 10 or 64%). An even larger drop was reported when dividing up those who had a combination of spinal surgeries (diskectomy, fusion, and/or laminectomy) with a pain drop of 5.7 out of 10 points!
Typically, spinal surgery SHOULD be the last resort, but we now know that is not always practiced. IF a patient has had more than one surgery and still has pain, the term “failed back syndrome” is applied and carries many symptoms and disability. Again, to NOT utilize chiropractic post-surgically seems almost as foolish as not utilizing it pre-surgically!
Cliff Atwell, B.S., D.C.