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.

February 07, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

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.

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