An increasing number of patients are now using complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) to treat back pain, a study has revealed.

Research published today (14 November) in the British Journal of General Practice (BJGP) Open showed that in 2015 16% of adults had seen a CAM practitioner in the preceding 12 months – a 4% increase since 2012.

CAMs include homeopathy, acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractic and herbal medicines.


Unequal access


The survey found that in 2015, 766 of 4,862 respondents had seen a CAM practitioner in the last 12 months, with more women than men and more people with a higher socioeconomic status likely to access it.

In England, the majority of people who visit a CAM practitioner (68%) tend to go for musculoskeletal issues – particularly back pain (38%) – followed by other musculoskeletal pain (22%) including neck, shoulder and knee pain and mental health problems (12%).

The study lead author Professor Debbie Sharp from the Centre for Academic Primary Care (CAPC) said that access to CAMs is ‘unequal’, with most people seeing a CAM practitioner being ‘better off’ and paying for the service themselves.

She added: ‘We also asked about people’s willingness to pay for CAM and found, unsurprisingly, that it seemed to be based on ability to pay. However, 13% of non-CAM users said they would be willing to part-pay [for treatment] if the NHS or other organisations paid the rest.’

At the moment, CAM availability on the NHS is limited. This includes:

  • The Alexander technique for Parkinson’s disease.
  • Ginger and acupressure for reducing morning sickness.
  • Manual therapy for lower back pain.

NHS England argued that this is due to certain CAM treatments being ‘based on principles and an evidence base that aren’t recognised by the majority of independent scientists’.