Coming up with safer solutions for back pain treatment

Opioid addiction worries have patients seeking alternatives to painkillers

ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s been called the painkiller paradox: millions of Americans are suffering from chronic pain, especially back pain, and need medication to make it manageable.

On the other hand, many say they’ve gotten hooked on those same drugs designed to help. Now, researchers are looking at safer solutions that may help avoid the high toll of addiction. 

Chrioni Lenertz, 38, has experienced a lot in her lifetime -- from traveling the world as a merchant marine, to surviving Stage 4 breast cancer. She overcame every challenge -- until she injured her back in the gym.

“I’m a young person. I’m an active person, and so I want to still continue, especially being a cancer survivor,” said Lenertz.

But Lenertz didn’t want to take pain pills for her back, and experts say for many people, there’s good reason. 

“Those people who tend to go down the path of utilizing opioids have a hard time kind of righting that ship and going in the other direction,” said William J. Hanney, DPT, PhD, ATC, CSCS, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy at the University of Central Florida.

Professor Albert Liu studies health informatics at the University of Central Florida and looked at the numbers for 45,000 with acute low back pain and followed them for a year. The patients who started physical therapy within three days of being evaluated had fewer ER visits and were less likely to seek out advanced imaging.

“They were 10 to 15 percent less likely to use a pain medication over one year,” Liu said.

Researchers also said immediate referral could lead to huge savings each year. 

“We can achieve a cost saving of $7 billion nationwide,” Liu told Ivanhoe.

Lenertz saw her doctor and now manages her pain through yoga and exercise.

"And I can just enjoy things a little bit more and not be so rough on myself,” she said.

In addition to physical therapy, researchers nationwide are working to find non-opioid drug treatments.

The FDA recently fast-tracked the drug tanezumab to treat chronic back pain.