The Last Profession Standing for Low Back Pain: Chiropractic

To Your Health
April, 2021 (Vol. 15, Issue 04)

By Donald M. Petersen Jr., BS, HCD(hc), FICC(h)

In the research world, low back pain has become the benchmark for effectiveness, as there are significantly more studies on LBP than any other musculoskeletal ailment. The studies we have seen over the past several years read like the makings of a great detective novel.

But instead of trying to discover “who done it,” science has been eliminating the usual suspects in an effort to unveil “who should do it.”

Ruling Out PTs or DOs

A study published last August eliminated two professions from the lineup. The randomized, controlled trial revealed that “[neither] spinal manipulation nor mobilization appeared to be an effective intervention for young adults with mild to moderate chronic low back pain.” While this may be unsettling on its face, it should be noted that “all treatments” were provided by “either a doctor of osteopathic medicine or physical therapist.”1

It’s Not MDs, Either

The most recent study narrows down the virtual last profession standing. In their efforts to better understand the risks associated with patients’ transition from acute to chronic LBP, a research team at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that almost half (48 percent) of medical patients received “nonconcordant care” or care not consistent with established guidelines. The researchers’ work demonstrated that “exposure to nonconcordant care was associated with increased odds of developing chronic LBP.”2

lbp - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark

In essence, the nonconcordant care provided by the medical physicians during the first 21 days of care increased the patient’s chances of transitioning from acute to chronic. Not surprisingly, the most common form of nonconcordant care involved drugs. Almost a third, (30 percent) “received prescriptions for nonrecommended medications,” of which almost two-thirds (65 percent) received opioids.

Health Payers Are Noticing

The above is not lost on health payers, who enjoy the ability to analyze large data to better understand what works. Two years ago, David Elton, DC, senior VP of clinical programs at OptumHealth, gave a powerful presentation in which he outlined the most effective care for their insureds. Dr. Elton noted, “The pathway that’s most aligned with all prevailing guidelines [is] when patients start with chiro / PT / acupuncture. … You receive the services you should, you avoid the services you shouldn’t, imaging is aligned, total episode cost is lowest. … The actuaries have done the work, it’s presented at the actuarial conference, the net of the increased conservative care will take out about 230 million in annual medical expenditures and reduce opiate prescribing for back pain by 25-26 percent.”3

The Last Profession Standing: Chiropractic

So, what’s the problem? Why aren’t almost all acute spine cases seen by doctors of chiropractic? (Not that this is the only benefit to chiropractic care.)

More than 30 years ago, United States District Judge Susan Getzendanner held that “the conduct of the [American Medical Association] and its members constituted a conspiracy in restraint of trade based on the following facts: the purpose of the boycott was to eliminate chiropractic; chiropractors are in competition with some medical physicians; the boycott had substantial anti-competitive effects; there were no pro-competitive effects of the boycott; and the plaintiffs (chiropractors) were injured as a result of the conduct.” Old prejudices die hard. I believe the impact of this effort is still influencing referral decisions today.

Based on these and multiple earlier studies, chiropractic is the only profession left standing for effective LBP care, both acute and chronic. And while this distinction minimizes the impact chiropractic care has on the rest of the spine, the entire musculoskeletal system and ultimately, total wellness, it does present providers and payers with a clear choice.

But as this most recent study demonstrates, many providers, particularly medical doctors, are still choosing nonconcordant care in place of guideline-directed chiropractic care. You can change all that – by visiting your doctor of chiropractic regularly for low back pain; and always requesting you see a chiropractor if your medical doctor suggests otherwise.


  1. Thomas JS, Clark BC, Russ DW, et al. Effect of spinal manipulative and mobilization therapies in young adults with mild to moderate chronic low back pain: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Netw Open, 2020;3(8):e2012589.
  2. Stevans JM, Delitto A, Khoja SS, et al. Risk factors associated with transition from acute to chronic low back pain in US patients seeking primary care. JAMA Netw Open, 2021;4(2):e2037371.
  3. The Role of Nonpharmacological Approaches to Pain Management: Proceedings of a Workshop. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2019.

Donald Petersen Jr. is the president and publisher of MPA Media, which produces To Your Health and a variety of other media resources on natural health and wellness, including trade publications for the chiropractic and acupuncture professions.

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