Want to try a safe, cheap and easy alternative medicine to treat your pain? Try wearing wool underwear.

I spend a lot of time browsing the medical literature. I often find myself looking for something in the PubMed database, only to fall victim to the same temptation that plagues most internet surfers. While reading an article abstract, I notice a link to another related article that seems interesting … so I click on it … which leads me to another article … and another. Fortunately, this nasty habit has been a real blessing, because they are all peer-reviewed studies, and reading widely has helped me understand health and disease on a deeper level, by ‘connecting dots’ from clinical research in a way that is rare in the modern era of hyper-specialized medicine. And sometimes, I stumble upon a really fascinating study.

This one was published in a journal called Collegium Antropologicum, the official journal of the Croatian Anthropological Society. This makes me take the data with a grain of salt, but it was such a great outcome that it is worth taking a look at it anyway.

The study was done at a rehabilitation clinic affiliated with Ataturk University in Erzerum, Turkey. It involved 48 patients with “nonspecific,” chronic, low-back pain, which means that like most of my patients, they had no obvious lesion causing their pain. Their average age was 40, there were slightly more women than men, most were married, not working full-time, mildly overweight, and had suffered from back pain for an average of five years.

Usually we describe the treatment used in a study as the intervention. In this case, the intervention was underwear. Half of them were given wool underwear and told to use them every day for two months. The other half were given underwear that looked identical but were made of cotton.

Now for the best part. If the results of this study are real, they are astonishing. After wearing wool for two months, their pain rating dropped from 6.7 to 0.7 out of 10, versus no change with cotton. Their scores on the Oswestry Disability Index, a standard questionnaire to measure function, dropped from 29.7 to 9.5. Wool wearers only used pain medication on four days in the 60-day study period, compared to 36 days in the cotton group.

The author explained these surprising results by suggesting that cold promotes muscle tension, stiffness and pain, and that wool underwear might reduce pain by keeping people warm.

This is far from being a perfect study, but if you have back pain, I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t want to try wearing wool underwear this winter. A link to underwearexpert.com tells me that wool is the new black. Shearing sheep is good for them, and wool clothing is eco-friendly, hypoallergenic, durable and odor-free. High-tech weaving has made wool lighter and less itchy than it used to be.

This is a great example of unexpected solutions that might help us deal with important problems. Chronic pain is an epidemic that is intimately linked to the opioid crisis. Is this all about wearing warmer clothing in the cold? Or could it have something to do with static electricity, or how the fibers interact with nerve endings? Regardless of how it might work, a larger, follow-up study seems urgently needed.

Unfortunately, this study was published in 2012, and there has been no follow-up study done since. This is disappointing, but not surprising. Medical research does not always pursue the ideas with the most merit, especially when patents, profits and politics are involved. Doctors, researchers and decision-makers who think outside the box are an essential resource in these challenging times, because the best solutions aren’t always the most profitable ones.

If you suffer from chronic pain, try this for yourself. If it works, great. If not, move on to the next thing. This is a rational prescribing approach to integrative medicine, and it should be supported as an important and valued part of the solution as we try to rethink the future of healthcare in the post-pandemic world.