Ouch, that aching back! If you’ve ever moaned in agony from back pain, rest assured—albeit uncomfortably—that you’re not alone. About eight in ten Americans will suffer from it at some point in their lives. After colds, it’s the No. 1 cause of missed work. It’s a major drain on the American economy, costing more than $90 billion a year in medical bills. Yet a cure for the common backache is as elusive as ever.
Part of the problem is the complexity of the spine, a miraculous structure of bone and cartilage that surrounds nerves linking the brain to the rest of the body. The lower back, called the lumbar region, bears most of a person’s weight on five vertebrae separated by disks that work like shock absorbers to provide cushioning and flexibility. Muscles and ligaments supply further support. But over time, the effects of aging decrease bone mass and muscle elasticity, and contribute to disk degeneration, leaving the lower back vulnerable to injury—and millions of people susceptible to pain.
Back pain can originate from many sources, and treatments are just as varied, from conservative approaches like exercises and massage, to more risky prescription medications and surgery. Unfortunately for many patients, these choices often provide only temporary relief, and some have debilitating side effects.
But the search for a magic bullet continues, and we may be closer than ever. Doctors and scientists are reporting success with these new and coming-soon treatments that can ease back pain for some sufferers while offering hope to all.
Next: This “pain pacemaker” blocks back pain to the brain