BOSTON -- Spinal manipulation by osteopaths appears to work about as well as conventional medicine at curing lingering back pain.
About 5 percent of U.S. physicians are osteopaths. Unlike M.D.s, they frequently use spinal manipulation as part of their treatment, especially for lower back pain.
In Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, osteopaths and M.D.s from Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago and the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine reported the results of a study intended to see which approach worked better.
Many studies have shown that most backaches go away within a month, no matter what kind of treatment sufferers get. So the new study was conducted on those who had been in pain for at least three weeks but less than six months.
The doctors randomly assigned 83 patients to get osteopathic manipulation and 72 to get conventional treatment, which consisted of painkillers, muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatory drugs. Three months later, there was no difference in how the two groups felt. Pain decreased by half in both.
The only significant difference was that the osteopathic patients took less medication.
Osteopathic medicine is intended to restore health by improving circulation. Its manipulation is somewhat similar to chiropractic, which is intended to heal by relieving obstruction in the nerves. Otherwise, osteopaths do everything that M.D.s do.
In an editorial in the journal, Dr. Joel D. Howell, an M.D. from the University of Michigan, theorized that part of the success of osteopathic manipulation comes from the fact that practitioners touch their patients. Many believe that personal contact with a physician can be an important part of the healing process.