A new study suggests herbal remedies like devil's claw, white willowbark and cayenne plaster may be as good as standard pain medication in dealing with short-term back pain. If true, that would be welcome news to many people.
Four out of five Americans will develop back pain, and they will spend $50 billion a year in a quest for relief. Back pain is the most common job-related disability and the fifth most-common cause of doctor visits.
The review, done by a group of researchers led by Dr. Joel J. Gagnier of the Provincial Medical Centre in Windsor, Ontario, appears in the current issue of The Cochrane Library. It was comprised of 10 studies that tested nearly 1,600 adults who suffered from nonspecific low back pain, not including those who suffered from arthritis, an infection, cancer or sciatica.
ABC News' Medical Editor Dr. Tim Johnson said that the Cochrane Group was "highly respected for their ability to review studies and come up with conclusions."
The group found that the literature demonstrated "the effectiveness of three different herbal products," Johnson said. "They say they found three medications, devil's claw, at a 50 [milligram] or 100 milligram dose; white willowbark, at a 240 milligram dose; and cayenne plaster, are effective compared to a placebo or a dose of Vioxx, which is no longer on the market."
Johnson said the herbs should be tested against standard over-the-counter painkillers like Tylenol, Aleve and Ibuprofen before drawing conclusions.
"This is one more tool in a huge bag of tools that are possibly available to treat low back pain," Johnson said. "If we had a one-size-fits-all solution that would be a good thing, but we don't, and what works for one person is not always effective for every person."
Johnson said that the review's authors stressed that the herbal remedies were good for short-term use -- four weeks to six weeks at a maximum. The products are also difficult to find, and dosage can be tricky because they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
The standard treatment for back pain "usually involves over-the-counter medicines and some kinds of exercise, but it is a trial-and-error process."
"The most-effective treatment for low back pain is time," Johnson said. "In the vast majority of cases, you'll get better within weeks or months. … That's why it's so difficult to study, because very often people get better on their own and you don't know if your medication actually worked."