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DEAR READERS: An estimated 80 percent of the population of western nations will experience at least one episode of severe back pain.

Of course, any individual who suffers from severe back pain should consult a doctor. Most patients are prescribed muscle relaxants, pain killers and/or sessions with a physical therapist, and given instructions for exercises to be performed at home. Does this mean the patient emerges pain-free? Not necessarily. For many people, the back pain persists to a greater or lesser degree for years.

A new book, "7 Steps to a Pain-Free Life," written by Robin McKenzie with Craig Kubey (published by Dutton), is now available in bookstores. Mr. McKenzie is an honored and respected physical therapist from New Zealand, and more than 20,000 health professionals worldwide have been trained in his methods. Most important, patients who have learned to use his exercises for back and neck pain assert that for the first time they could effectively manage -- or banish -- their own pain.

P.S. A word to the wise: Before beginning this, or any other exercise program designed to reduce pain from any condition, consult your doctor.

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