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Bouncing Back; Retailers have discovered that bad backs make good business, as multitudes of aching Americans gladly pay for relief in the form of recliners, mattresses and a variety of other products.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The choices are boring exercises for the rest of your life, potentially risky surgery, being stuck with needles, or a butter-soft leather recliner that massages you as it plays soothing music.

Who you gonna call?

Not your personal trainer or your orthopedic spine surgeon or your acupuncturist.

Try JoAnne Schatz.

JoAnne Schatz is the owner of a Beltsville-based chain of stores selling back-care products. JoAnne's Bed & Back Shops moved into Timonium and Catonsville last summer, and a third opened in Annapolis a few weeks ago. Schatz, a perky 60-year-old, has discovered -- like many entrepreneurs -- that back pain can be big business.

"Once the computer came about," she says, "It was like people were looking for me. Backaches and neck aches are epidemic."

In the Baltimore area, JoAnne's co- exists peacefully with competitors like Relax the Back, a chain of more than 100 stores in the United States and Canada, and Brookstone, which has an area de-voted to back-care and massage products. Baltimore, like the rest of the country, has plenty of bad backs to go around.

Don't be surprised if sooner rather than later we also get a Healthy Back Store Inc. (now in Rockville) and a Better Back Store. (The closest one right now is in Philadelphia.)

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, back pain is second only to colds and other upper respiratory complaints as the reason for a doctor's visit. Some 6 million Americans a year seek medical help for a bad back; countless others suffer in relative silence through less serious episodes. An oft-quoted estimate is that 80 percent of us will experience back pain at some time in our lives.

Blame it on the computer, as Schatz does. Blame it on an aging population, or people so consumed with fitness that they injure themselves in the process. In any case, chronic back pain is a given for many Americans. What isn't so obvious is why they are now spending so much money on gizmos to alleviate it -- as much as $75 million in 1998 at Relax the Back stores alone.

"Everybody's looking for a quick fix," says Jim Doyle, a physical therapist with Physiotherapy Associates in Annapolis. "It's the American way to look for shortcuts."

Some see it as part of an overall trend in the '90s toward self-help.

"Lots of our patients are becoming disenchanted with medical solutions" from ibuprofen to surgery, says Dr. Douglas Miller, team chiropractor for the Ravens, "so they're looking for supports [and other devices] to manage the pain."

Others, more cynically, feel that these stores are simply the result of good marketing, aimed at a population that's become more conscious of being ergonomically correct. Toy stores, in other words, for affluent baby boomers.

Those "toys" range from a low-tech but colorful plastic, jack-shaped massager for $10 to a shiatsu massage lounger with power recline for $2995. And hundreds of items in between.

But some customers would be outraged at the idea that these products could be considered toys. Take Joan Denny, who's bought a recliner and a bed from Relax the Back. Surgery wasn't an option for the 68-year-old.

Knowing that nothing was going to cure her back problems, Denny went to the Timonium store hoping to find something that would ease the pain. She looked at beds with adjustable frames and pressure-relief mattresses costing thousands of dollars. (She ended up buying a queen-size Tempur-Pedic mattress and frame for $2600.)

"I went home and agonized over buying my bed," she says. "But it was money well-spent."

The chains' bread-and-butter items are back-friendly beds and chairs -- particularly office chairs. These are signature series of office chairs, ergonomically correct and exception-ally adjustable. And priced accordingly.

Plenty of customers, though, shop these stores for something smaller. A cushion, say, to make a car trip more comfortable. They may be shocked to find that something like the BackSaver Wonder Cushion -- which is made of foam, not nightingale tongues -- costs $60.

Dr. Ira Fedder, an orthopedic spine surgeon with Orthopaedic Associates in Towson, has a word of advice. "I tell my patients to make a lumbar roll out of a towel," he says. "Create simple modifications. When you find out what works, then go out and buy something similar that looks good. It's mostly trial and error."

A lot of these products have been available in medical equipment catalogs for years, points out Baltimore physical therapist Natalie McIntyre. But now that patients are lucky if their insurance company pays for a walker, never mind a therapeutic motion back support, they are more likely to go shopping for themselves.

Although McIntyre feels "the biggest thing that would help most people is to get up from their chairs and take a walk," she does like some of the devices.

The inflatable Swiss ball, for instance, which costs from about $20 to $34 depending on size, can be incorporated into a variety of back exercises. It can also function as a computer seat that forces the user to sit up straight and keep both feet on the ground. Its constant slight movement is good for the spine, says McIntyre. Whether people will find it odd that you're typing while sitting on a giant red ball is, of course, another question.

The important thing to remember about any of these devices is that what works for one person may do nothing for the next. Ask 10 different people what causes their back pain and what relieves it, and you could get 10 different answers. It stands to reason that you should be able to return any device that doesn't help in a reasonable amount of time. If a store doesn't give you a money-back guarantee, particularly on the pricier items, think twice before buying them. And don't expect miracles from the ones that do work.

"In the end, these are all passive devices," says Fedder, "which is OK, but you still need to exercise."

HERE'S A SAMPLE OF WHAT BACK STORES OFFER:

BackSaver recliner

This chair has as much style as it does health benefits, but you pay dearly for the patented design. The "zero-gravity" recliner puts you in the position NASA astronauts use for liftoff, with your knees above your heart. It's the "neutral" spine position some doctors recommend. ($895-$2075)

Inversion therapy table

You lie on an incline hanging from your feet. The stretch is supposed to increase the space between vertebrae. Talk to your doctor first about this one. (around $400)

Jacknobber

Even if you aren't a massage therapist, you can give a pleasant rubdown with this hand-held tool that looks like a giant, colorful jack. ($10)

Portable foot rest

Keeping your knees up seems to take some of the pressure off the back. This small, light foot rest comes in handy. It can be folded up and carried along wherever you go. ($34.50)

Self-inflating back rest

This portable pillow can fit in a purse or briefcase, then be blown up when you need it to make a car or plane seat more comfortable. ($30)

Sensy ball

It looks like a plaything, but it is a back-care product. You arch your back over the ball for a good stretch. The knobby surface grips the floor and your back. ($20.45)

S-Massager

The curved shape supposedly makes it easier to apply deep pressure to sore back muscles. ($24-$40)

Tempur-Pedic Swedish pillow

Meant to cradle your neck at the proper angle and conform to your head while you sleep, the foam pops back into its original shape when you get up. ($80-$150)

TheraBeads

When you microwave these, they become a moist heat pack to drape around a sore neck. ($29)

TIPS

How to stay out of the back stores:

* Get at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise such as walking or swimming at least three times a week.

* Stay flexible. Keep hamstrings and quadriceps (the muscles in the back and front of your thighs) stretched out.

* Don't slump, particularly when you're sitting.

* Don't sit for long periods of time. Get up and move around.

* Lift objects by bending your knees, keeping your back as straight as possible.

* Hold what you're lifting as close to your body as possible.

* If you're carrying extra weight, particularly around your middle, lose it.

* Irritated back muscles can be soothed by putting your feet and lower legs up on a chair while you lie on the floor on your back.

* Try aspirin or ibuprofen, warm baths, heating pads or massage for temporary relief. If the pain persists more than three or four days, or if it's accompanied by weakness or numbness down either leg, a visit to the doctor's office is in order.

* Remember that time and common sense alleviate most back pain.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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