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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Complementary and alternative medical therapies for chronic low back pain: What treatments are patients willing to try?

Karen J Sherman12*, Daniel C Cherkin13, Maureen T Connelly45, Janet Erro1, Jacqueline B Savetsky5, Roger B Davis6 and David M Eisenberg5

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Health Studies, Group Health Cooperative, Seattle, Washington 98101, USA

2 Department of Epidemiology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

3 Departments of Family Medicine and Health Services, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

4 Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

5 Harvard Medical School Osher Institute and Division for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

6 Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2004, 4:9  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-4-9

Published: 19 July 2004



Although back pain is the most common reason patients use complementary and alternative medical (CAM) therapies, little is known about the willingness of primary care back pain patients to try these therapies. As part of an effort to refine recruitment strategies for clinical trials, we sought to determine if back pain patients are willing to try acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, meditation, and t'ai chi and to learn about their knowledge of, experience with, and perceptions about each of these therapies.


We identified English-speaking patients with diagnoses consistent with chronic low back pain using automated visit data from one health care organization in Boston and another in Seattle. We were able to confirm the eligibility status (i.e., current low back pain that had lasted at least 3 months) of 70% of the patients with such diagnoses and all eligible respondents were interviewed.


Except for chiropractic, knowledge about these therapies was low. Chiropractic and massage had been used by the largest fractions of respondents (54% and 38%, respectively), mostly for back pain (45% and 24%, respectively). Among prior users of specific CAM therapies for back pain, massage was rated most helpful. Users of chiropractic reported treatment-related "significant discomfort, pain or harm" more often (23%) than users of other therapies (5–16%). Respondents expected massage would be most helpful (median of 7 on a 0 to 10 scale) and meditation least helpful (median of 3) in relieving their current pain. Most respondents indicated they would be "very likely" to try acupuncture, massage, or chiropractic for their back pain if they did not have to pay out of pocket and their physician thought it was a reasonable treatment option.


Most patients with chronic back pain in our sample were interested in trying therapeutic options that lie outside the conventional medical spectrum. This highlights the need for additional studies evaluating their effectiveness and suggests that researchers conducting clinical trials of these therapies may not have difficulties recruiting patients.

acupuncture; chiropractic; massage; meditation; t'ai chi; low back pain