Many chronic pain sufferers seek alternative treatments such as acupuncture or chiropractic therapy but often don't tell their primary care physicians that they've done so, a study has found.

In a survey conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, of 6,000 former Kaiser Permanente Northwest members treated for chronic pain, 58 percent reported they had used either of those alternative treatments or both in an attempt to gain relief from conditions such as back pain, arthritis, joint pain, muscle or nerve pain and headache.

"Our study confirms that most of our patients with chronic pain are seeking complementary treatments to supplement the care we provide in the primary care setting," says study lead author Dr. Charles Elder. "The problem is that too often, doctors don't ask about this treatment, and patients don't volunteer the information."

An examination of the medical records of survey respondents showed 66 percent of those seeking acupuncture treatments and 45 percent getting chiropractic care were able to gain access to such therapies through their health plans.

While the majority of them discussed the alternative therapies with their primary physician, a significant number — 35 percent of those receiving acupuncture and 42 percent who went to a chiropractor — did not inform their primary care provider, the study found.

Elder said this disconnect between patient and doctor was a concern.

"We want our patients to get better, so we need to ask them about the alternative and complementary approaches they are using," he says. "If we know what's working and what's not working, we can do a better job advising patients, and we may be able to recommend an approach they haven't tried."

Patients may not realize the importance of discussing all treatment options with their doctors or are possibly concerned their primary physician might be hostile to such alternative care possibilities, he suggests.

If his own patients were unable to find relief through medication, physical therapy, exercise or counseling, he might suggest alternative care, Elder says, but he would want to be aware of the kinds of outside care they were receiving.

"For us to deliver the most comprehensive and effective care to patients with chronic pain, complementary and alternative modalities like chiropractic and acupuncture need to be a part of the conversation," he says.

Around 100 million Americans are affected by chronic pain annually, with medical costs of almost $600 billion, figures from the Institute of Medicine show.

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