Back pain – should I see my GP or the Chiropractor?

When you’re struggling with back pain, it’s often not easy to know where to turn. Some people believe that a visit to the GP is in order, others favour the chiropractor and yet others simply try to ignore the problem (Pro tip : that last option won’t work!). This week we ask, where should you go when an episode of back pain occurs.


GP’s and back pain

While the NHS does not publicly publish detailed statistics about the nature of our visits to the GP, they do tell us that “musculoskeletal system & connective tissue” problems account for the second most popular reason for a consultation.  This means back pain, headaches and neck pain are just behind the most common reason to see a GP – generally categorised as the “respiratory system”, and comprising the majority of our colds, flu, infections and other common conditions.  Out of interest the third most popular problem patients need a consult with a local UK doctor for is for the “skin and subcutaneous system”.

We don’t, therefore, have exact figures for the UK, but what’s clear is that back pain, neck pain and headache type symptoms take up a huge amount of GP’s time, and account for a large number of the patients they see. There are times when a trip to the GP is the right call – but for back pain, the best possible option is often the provision of painkillers, and some advice to rest. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that neither of these options is likely to be effective in the long run. When we’re talking back pain, it’s worth keeping in mind that GP’s are, just that – “general” practitioners -, whereas chiropractors are specialists in musculoskeletal issues. So, if you’re suffering from a musculoskeletal issue, does a trip to the chiropractor make more sense? Let’s decide…


Are you in severe pain, or are you having trouble breathing?

For people who are suffering from any kind of pain which is severe, unexpected and especially of a rapid onset, the GP is the best port of call – and if you are having trouble breathing, or have trouble staying conscious, it may be best to call 999.


How long can you wait?

When you’re in pain, your number one priority is usually to get relief as soon as possible – but unless you’re an emergency case, it’s likely you’ll have to wait at least a week for an appointment to see your GP. If you’re looking for a drug-free treatment, you might be able to get this through the NHS, but you’ll likely wait for weeks, if not months. At Complete Chiropractic, by contrast, we can usually fit new patients in within a couple of days, and treatment can start very soon after.


Which is really cheaper?

Seeing your GP is, of course, free of charge, as is any treatment provided through the NHS – and that’s the beauty of it. The problem is that getting treatment on the NHS often takes more time than you would like -which means that getting a proper diagnosis can be a slow process. As chiropractors, we believe that the best way to approach a case of unexplained back pain is by gathering as much evidence as possible, and this means getting X-rays of your spine so we can see exactly what’s going on. A GP may well send you for an X-ray too, although in this case you’ll first have to wait for an initial appointment, will be given painkillers and expected to try those, and then perhaps, sent for an X-ray.

Going through the NHS means your X-ray will cost nothing – whereas at the chiropractor there will be a small charge – however, your initial visit to the chiropractor will usually include time for X-rays if required, and you’ll have your results at your follow up appointment, often within 24 hours. Treatment usually begins immediately following this.

If you back pain is annoying,  but does not impact on your quality of life there’s probably no harm in waiting for the GP, but if your pain is bad enough to interfere with your work – or even makes it impossible to work, it may be far cheaper in the long run to visit the chiropractor.


Is it a long story?

Patients with long term back pain often have a lot to say about their condition and how it has progressed – most of the patients we see are able to describe what exacerbates or eases the pain in great detail and can recall many specific painful incidents. While you might think chiropractors get bored listening to these stories, the truth is quite the opposite – getting an idea of the progression of your pain and its characteristics simply through talking to the patient can often be very helpful in making a diagnosis.

Chiropractors have time to review these kinds of issues in detail with a patient since we have control over the number of patients we see in a day and can ensure that everyone gets sufficient time. On the other hand, it’s no secret that GP’s are notoriously overworked – recent research showed that on average, a GP has time for only 13 minutes with each patient[1]. By contrast, at Complete Chiropractic, our initial consultation process takes about an hour.


How long have you had the pain?

If you’ve been suffering from back pain for a long time, its highly likely that painkillers will prove ineffective – for pain which has not subsided after several weeks a trip to the GP may be valuable as a tool to rule out any more serious conditions, but  (especially if you have already tried medication) an alternative approach which addresses the problem, not the symptoms, is almost certainly going to be a better choice.


What kind of treatment do you need?

This question could equally be titled “what kind of back pain do you have”. Since the NHS sees most manual therapies (that is to say approaches such as chiropractic, massage or sports therapy) as complementary services, they are usually not funded. This means that GP’s often have a very limited range of treatment options available for back pain – and usually that just means painkillers.

For cases of pain which have been caused by a trip, fall, injury or obvious strain painkillers might be the right approach – sometimes it’s just a case of waiting for the body to heal and, something to ease that process might do the job. However, for cases of long-term pain or pain without an obvious cause painkillers are almost never the best approach, in fact you may well find painkillers to be ineffective, and end up visiting the chiropractor in the end anyway!


Finally – do you have private healthcare?

If you’re lucky enough to have private healthcare, many of the foregoing points may not apply to you – GP’s working with private care patients often have a much wider set of options available, and will often recommend chiropractic as a first-line approach. In fact, many private health plans do now include chiropractic! If you’re private patient and want to try chiropractic be sure to ask your GP for a referral.


How do I go about seeing a Chiropractor?

If you think a chiropractic consultation might be the right choice for you, getting in touch couldn’t be easier – simply give us a call, and don’t forget to take advantage of our new patient special right here. A chiropractic consultation will, if nothing else, give you a detailed examination of your pain and can usually provide you with some clear answers as to why it hurts. Booking an initial consultation at Complete Chiropractic does not commit you to a treatment plan, so you’ve nothing to lose by getting a professional opinion today!


[1] Fifteen minutes with the patient, please BMJ 2007;335:s128

Blog by / August 23, 2019 / Blog

Dr. Paul Irvine is a doctor of chiropractic who graduated in 1994 with a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of NSW and in 1996, attained his Master of Chiropractic degree from Macquarie University in Australia. He practised in North Sydney for 5 years before he left Australia to travel and practise in the UK. He joined Complete Chiropractic in 2003 (est 1999) and took over the clinic in 2007