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On a Monday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Today in Your Health, we report on the most common reasons people go to the doctor - back pain. More than 1 of every 4 adult Americans say they've recently suffered lower back pain, and that figure is on the rise. Billions of dollars are spent every year treating that problem.

But many specialists say less medical treatment is usually more effective. As part of our occasional series Less is More, NPR's Richard Knox and Patti Neighmond take a closer look.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Let's start with a cautionary tale about how not to deal with back pain. It involves a guy who knows what he's talking about.

DR. JERRY GROOPMAN: I suffered back pain almost 20 years.

RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: Dr. Jerry Groopman is a Harvard cancer specialist who writes about medicine for The New Yorker. When I went to see him, he told me his story. Thirty-two years ago, he was a young marathon runner when back pain struck. He says it was a bolt from the blue.

GROOPMAN: I couldn't run. It was difficult to sleep. And I was totally fixated on it. I wasn't confined to bed, but I was hobbling around.

KNOX: Groopman wanted the problem fixed right away. So he found a surgeon who removed a damaged disc, but he still had pain. Then, one day during brunch at a friend's house, something happened that would change his life.

GROOPMAN: I stood up from a chair and just had an explosive electric shock through my lower back; basically, fell to the floor and couldn't get up.

KNOX: His previous pain was severe, but this was over the top. Groopman could hardly move.

GROOPMAN: And I was so desperate after almost three weeks that I found a neurosurgeon and orthopedist who said: You have spinal instability. We'll fuse you and in three weeks, you'll be playing football.

NEIGHMOND: In a spinal fusion, surgeons weld together adjacent vertebrate with a bone graft. It's an increasingly common operation.

KNOX: But for Groopman, doing more made things worse.

GROOPMAN: I woke up from the surgery in excruciating pain and basically, could hardly move my legs. And I remember the orthopedic surgeon coming by and saying, well, I don't know why you're having so much trouble - and so on. He said, but you know, if it doesn't get better in a few weeks, we could re-operate.

NEIGHMOND: In fact, 1 in 5 patients who have had surgery for back pain do end up having more surgery. For some, like Jerry Groopman, it doesn't help at all. And yet surgery for back pain has been on the rise for the past few decades, along with other treatments such as steroid injections and use of opioid painkillers.

Dr. Richard Deyo is a professor of evidence-based medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University.

DR. RICHARD DEYO: Certainly, there is good reason to think that we are overprescribing painkillers, overprescribing injections, overprescribing back surgery.

KNOX: Deyo says one reason invasive treatments for back pain have been rising is MRI scans. These detailed, color-coded pictures showing a cross-section of patients' spines are a technological tour de force. But they can be dangerously misleading.

DEYO: Seeing is believing. And gosh, we can actually see degenerated discs, we can see bulging discs. We can see all kinds of things that are alarming.

KNOX: That is, they look alarming. But they're most likely not the cause of the pain. Lots of people who are pain-free actually have terrible-looking MRIs. So being less aggressive can sometimes bring more benefit.

NEIGHMOND: Now, surgery can help for certain conditions such as a herniated disk with leg pain, called sciatica. But most age-related back pain usually can't be fixed with surgery.

Dr. Jim Rainville is a rehab specialist at New England Baptist Hospital, in Boston. He says research is showing that the problems often have nothing to do with the mechanics of the spine, but the way the nervous system is reacting.

DR. JIM RAINVILLE: It's a change in the way that the sensory system is processing information so that normal sensations of touch, sensations produced by movements, are translated by the nervous system into a pain message. That process is what drives people completely crazy - who have back pain - because so many things induce discomfort.

KNOX: It's a totally different way of thinking about pain. Normally, pain is an alarm bell that says stop what you're doing right now, or you may hurt yourself. But for some people, that pain is a false signal. It's not about looming danger; it's actually caused by hypersensitive nerves.

Rainville says many patients with chronic back pain get stuck in an endless loop of pain.

RAINVILLE: In about 25 percent of people, the sensitization of the nervous system persists.

NEIGHMOND: Some people may be genetically prone to it. But Rainville discovered these patients can actually learn to ignore this pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND CHATTER)

LISA CHILDS: Let's warm up first on the rotary torso, just to get you going.

NEIGHMOND: Lisa Childs is a physical therapist at a back pain boot camp Rainville developed. She's teaching back pain patients how to rethink their pain.

CHILDS: I'm just going to ask you: Is it easy, moderate, difficult?

JANET WERTHEIMER: Moderate.

NEIGHMOND: Childs is working with 61-year-old Janet Wertheimer, who's had severe back pain on and off for 10 years. Most people with chronic back pain couldn't imagine doing what Wertheimer's doing - using her back to lift 100 pounds of lead weights.

CHILDS: Do you feel like you could do five pounds more, or 10 pounds?

WERTHEIMER: You can try 10, and I'll see what happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEIGHTS)

WERTHEIMER: And if I can't make it, I'll go back to five.

CHILDS: OK.

WERTHEIMER: Oh! That did hurt.

CHILDS: OK.

NEIGHMOND: Wertheimer has a sharp twinge in her back. But Childs says that's OK. She's building strength. And along the way, she's learning not to be afraid of the pain.

WERTHEIMER: It is learning not to fear the pain, learning that you can live with pain; understand what that pain is, but then put it aside.

NEIGHMOND: Eventually, after a few months, most patients in Rainville's boot camp and similar programs find that the pain lessens and sometimes even goes away.

KNOX: Even patients like Jerry Groopman, whose back pain was worsened by surgery, can unlearn their pain. For years after his spinal fusion, Groopman was never without back pain. He tried a long list of things, without success. Then a friend suggested he see Rainville. Groopman was skeptical, but he decided to give Rainville's boot camp a try.

GROOPMAN: He was really tough. And he said to me: You are worshiping the volcano god of pain. And I thought, what is this about? (Laughter)

KNOX: Rainville explains.

RAINVILLE: In primitive cultures, if you lived near a volcano and the volcano started smoking and looking like something was going to happen, well, it was obvious because gods were mad at you. And you'd start doing silly things - sacrificing chickens or goats or whatever, thinking that that would appease the gods.

KNOX: In a strange way, Rainville says, people with chronic back pain do something very similar.

RAINVILLE: Oh, my God, I'd better sacrifice this. They stop playing golf, or they stop playing on their softball team, or they stop their running; and then they're really careful of carrying groceries. And they keep putting things onto this altar, thinking that that's going to change the situation.

NEIGHMOND: Patients get so afraid of pain that they do anything to avoid it. But for most people, it doesn't work. Instead, they just lose strength and flexibility. And remember, this kind of pain is a false signal. It doesn't mean you're going to do permanent damage if you don't stop.

KNOX: Eventually, that message sank in with the skeptical Dr. Groopman.

GROOPMAN: It took about two months for me to really buy in that this was the way to go.

KNOX: Sometimes, like when he bent over to pick up a plastic crate filled with lead weights, he had a flare-up of back pain. But the therapist talked him down from it.

GROOPMAN: Just let it go. Don't pay attention to it.

KNOX: Basically, doing is believing.

GROOPMAN: Doing is believing. And after about nine months, I was basically without any back pain.

NEIGHMOND: It doesn't work that well for everyone. Janet Wertheimer still has some back pain. But now, she says, after boot camp she can pretty much do anything she wants - ski, mountain hike, walk her dogs. And the pain? Most of the time, she says, she blocks it out and moves on.

I'm Patti Neighmond.

KNOX: And I'm Richard Knox, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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