More than three-quarters of Americans have neck pain at some point in their lives, but there's been little research on what treatments are the most helpful.
Now a new study has a surprising answer: Chiropractic care or simple neck exercises done daily at home were much better at reducing pain than taking pain medications like aspirin, ibuprofen or even strong narcotics.
And the relief provided by either exercise or spinal manipulation by a chiropractor was long-lasting -- even up to a year later, when researchers checked back in with the study's participants.
"Even a year later, there were differences between the spinal manipulation and medication groups," study co-author Gert Bronfort, a research professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Minnesota, told the New York Times.
The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, involved 272 adults, aged 18 to 65 years, who had had neck pain lasting for 2 to 12 weeks. The participants were then split into three groups and followed for about three months.
One group visited a chiropractor for 20-minute sessions throughout the study, for an average of 15 visits total. A second group was assigned to take common pain relievers like ibuprofen or, with a doctor's guidance, stronger drugs like narcotics and muscle relaxants.
A third group met twice with physical therapists who taught them how to do simple, gentle exercises to stretch neck muscles at home. Each exercise called for 5 to 10 repetitions done up to eight times a day. (Here's a link to the home exercises; click on the word "supplement" for a pdf showing photos.)
The researchers measured the subjects' pain throughout the treatment, including at the end of the study and at six and 12 months after the start of treatment.
Both non-medication groups reported substantially more pain relief than the medication group. After 12 weeks, about 57 percent of the chiropractic group and 48 percent of the exercise group reported at least a 75 percent reduction in pain, compared to just 33 percent of the people in the medication group.
A year later, more than half of the subjects who had received spinal manipulation or exercise still reported at least 75 percent less pain, compared to just a 38 percent reduction in pain among those who had taken medication.
The fact that both chiropractic and exercise produced similar pain relief results was a "big surprise," Bronfort told the Times. "We hadn't expected that they would be that close." He called it "good news for patients."
The one worrisome part: The study revealed that those who only took medication not only got less pain relief, they kept taking higher amounts more frequently throughout the follow-up period, up to a year later -- a development that can have troublesome side effects, like gastrointestinal problems, Bronfort said.
He urged patients to take a more active role in their care -- such as doing the exercises or visiting a chiropractor -- instead of just swallowing a pill.
Photo credit: physioms.com