Are you reading this standing up or sitting down? A few years ago, Leah Price wrote a marvelous article in the New York Times’s book review title “Bent Spines.” In it, she describes her own back pain journey and reviews a history of the “perils” and the dangers of reading. It sounds absurd, but two centuries ago, doctors blamed reading for all manner of bodily ills. Long before 1949, when the term “ergonomics” joined our vocabulary, doctors blamed reading for all sorts of health hazards including (to repeat the quote she used from one 1795 authority) “weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy.”
It’s no surprise then that inventive minds have tried, through the ages, to concoct reading implements to make the task easier and accommodate people who preferred to stand, sit, or access multiple books at once. Renaissance inventors designed Ferris-wheel-like contraptions in which each volume rides flat on a tray, open to just where the reader left it. Thomas Jefferson imagined a lazy-susan-like bookstand that could hold five books open at once. Labor- and back-savings devices are probably as old as the libraries in the world. So are devices claiming to be the ultimate back pain remedy. But today, we have an easier means to market these devices thanks to the Internet and television.
If you flip on the television late at night or on a Saturday morning, you’re likely to encounter infomercials claiming to end your back pain with the purchase of their “revolutionary devices,” program, or system. As I write this, I’m fielding questions about one popular device in particular that is currently featured on television with its promise to relieve back pain in a matter of minutes. Do these things work? What do I think of them? It’s a straightforward answer: if they work for you, they work for you. Solving back pain problems requires an interdisciplinary approach. And, part of that interdisciplinary approach entails trial and error because there’s no way to know exactly why one treatment works miraculously on one patient and does absolutely nothing for another person who seemingly has the same problem.
I have no question that some of the positive effect of these devices is a result of the placebo effect. But there’s nothing wrong with the placebo effect if it eases your pain. Pain remains such a mystery to us that it behooves us to try new approaches and to be open to options that could have a positive impact. We just also need to be careful about making too many assumptions and throwing all of our faith (and money) into products that claim to generate miraculous results. So should you try something that shouts out to you on late-night television? That’s up to you. It’s unlikely that it will hurt (except for your wallet), and it indeed just might help.