Chiropractic and pain medication both aim to offer pain relief, and although the pros and cons of both can be disputed, something that cannot be disputed is that the cost of chiropractic is significantly more than over the counter pain medication. A 300 count bottle of ibuprofen retails for around $7 while the average chiropractic visit is around $65.
Chiropractic treatment typically requires several visits, so why pay for chiropractic when you could buy a month's supply of pain medication for the cost of one visit? Well, there are many well-known health concerns of constantly taking pain medication for weeks at a time, which will be addressed later in this blog, but there is a foundational difference between the two that borders on philosophical. As with most philosophical notions, it's best described using an analogy.
Let's pretend you walk into a room of your home or apartment and see a spot on your ceiling. It's various shades of brown against the white paint and roughly circular in shape. It's a textbook sign of a leak in your roof.
Now at this point in time, you have two options: you can call someone to find and repair the problem in your roof OR you could get some paint and cover up the spot on the ceiling. Most people would not even consider the second option. They reflexively have a problem with this idea, but let's really dissect these two options.
Finding someone to repair your roof is comparatively harder. You need to find someone who's qualified, you may have to sort through online reviews or read through websites. Then comes the awkward phone call to schedule a time for the repair person to come, and making time to be there when the repair takes place. The repair may cost hundreds of dollars when it's all said and done. Not exactly a fun process. But then there's the second option... A small can of paint and a paintbrush can be found for less than $20. You could paint over the spot yourself, you could probably get it done and get back to your Netflix episode before the paint's dry!
By now I'm sure you see where I'm going with this. While painting over the spot in this hypothetical situation is technically an option, it's not a very good option. Painting over the spot on the ceiling is quick, easy, and cheap. It will hide the signs of your problem from you and from any dinner guests that are stopping by this evening, but it won't really fix your problem.
The spot on the ceiling will return with the next bit of rain. You could paint over it again. You could paint over the spot a hundred times and it may still be cheaper and easier than the roof repair, but by that time you likely have mold growing in your attic and there is likely some rot forming in the wood that supports your house. To fix the problem at this point would require contractors and mold treatments and it may be a several thousand dollar problem at this point.
This analogy illustrates the "philosophical" difference between choosing chiropractic (or alternative types of therapy) and pain medication. Do you want to sacrifice time and money to try to get to the underlying cause of your pain or would you rather cover the pain up? Would you like to try and patch the hole in your roof or would you rather cover the damage with paint temporarily? Unfortunately, this analogy also illustrates the pitfalls of chronically trying to cover up signs of an underlying problem, which is that the problem can get worse in the meantime. The contractors and mold company in this analogy represent an orthopedist and specialist. I'm a chiropractor and I'll be the first to tell you I can't fix everything for everybody. At a certain point, people's problems progress to the point where conservative care is no longer an option and surgery or other drastic procedures are the only option.
Now the levity of this analogy obviously does not apply to those who take an Aleve or Aspirin for the occasional ache or headache. Like most things, pain medication can be fine in moderation, but for those who suffer from chronic pain or regularly have to take over the counter medication to get through the day, this analogy can be very on the nose. And unfortunately for those who use medication to manage chronic pain, the dose needed to cover up their symptoms can increase over time and may eventually lead to prescription pain medication.
Prescription pain medication, like it's over the counter counterparts has it's useful time and place, but as the "opioid epidemic" in America has come to light in recent years, we are more aware than ever of the consequences that can come from the chronic use of prescription pain killers.
Even if someone never escalates to prescription medication, long term use of over the counter pain medication have their own side effects. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can cause liver damage in some cases, Aspirin can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, and ibuprofen (Advil) can also cause stomach and kidney problems. Although some people can tolerate long term use of these medications better than others and their doctors may even advise them to take them regularly for a time, I don't believe that relying on any of these medications daily would be any M.D.'s idea of optimal health.
So pain medication may not treat the underlying cause of pain symptoms and they come with some inherent risks and side effects, but at least they are cheaper than chiropractic or physical therapy right? Well, possibly not. Many studies have suggested that in the long run chiropractic can be one of the most cost-effective solutions for people suffering from muscle, nerve and joint pain. Just like in our roof analogy, if problems are covered up they tend to progress and get worse. Instead of mold and wood rot pain causing problems in our bodies can increase until they require expensive procedures to resolve if they can be fully resolved at all. Below is a cost comparison study for patients with spine pain conducted by the insurance company Optum. If anyone has a vested interest in overall health care costs it's insurance companies, and more and more they are beginning to see chiropractic as a cost-effective way to help people manage their pain, both chronic and acute.
So how can we best summarize this information? I would say that if you suffer from the occasional headache or some pain or soreness after increased work or stress then over the counter pain medication is fine to get you through some symptoms while your body recovers. If you find yourself regularly taking pain medication to manage or mask pain then you are probably doing yourself a disservice. Stop painting the ceiling and get your roof fixed! Chiropractic may cost more time and money than ibuprofen in the short term, but in the long run, it can both improve your quality of life and save you money by addressing the underlying cause of your pain and keeping your condition from progressing.