Recently, there has been a lot of coverage in the mainstream media about three research articles on lower back pain, that were published in the medical journal The Lancet. These studies can be found on the Lancet’s website: https://www.thelancet.com/series/low-back-pain. In my opinion the research represents a significant shift in the way we treat lower back pain. Moving away from focusing on treating the structures in the lower back, such as joints and discs, to a more holistic approach. The main message portrayed in the press was that treatments regularly used for lower back pain, such as injections and surgery, are often ineffective and potentially harmful. Important to know for someone suffering with lower back pain, as you want to know how good a treatment option will be and whether it could cause you harm, but alongside this there was also lots of other good information about lower back pain that didn’t get picked up on. So I am going to highlight the other information that I think is relevant over a series of blogs.
The first paper published in the Lancet is titled: What is low back pain and why we need to pay attention (Hartvigson et al., 2018), and one of the key messages I took from this paper was:
‘Lower back pain is a symptom and not a disease’
The article explains that in the majority of people there is no nociceptive cause for lower back pain, this means there is often no known structural cause for their back pain (I will go into this in more detail in my next blog). If in most people there is no known structural cause of their pain and lower back pain is a symptom, what is it a symptom of? In the article it reports that the cause of lower back pain is related to a combination of psychological, social and biophysical factors, but what does all that mean?
In my experience after treating thousands of people with acute lower back pain, the onset of pain is a symptom of what is going on in someone’s life, rather than they have damaged their back. It is related to the circumstances they find themselves in and the emotional impact this is having on them. It is very rare that people with lower back pain have done something physical, to have damaged their back. Our lower backs are very robust and it takes a lot to damage them. Instead what I have noticed, is that there has often been a change in circumstances prior to the onset of pain. This change in circumstances usually has an emotional impact, it may also have a physical impact and it takes them out of their usual routine. By doing this it means that they lose their coping strategies and it means that the situation becomes stressful. I’ll use an example of a typical (but made up) presentation of a patient with lower back pain to explain this:
‘A 55 year old gentleman comes to see me with lower back pain, which started a week earlier. There was no physical reason for this pain, he hadn’t lifted anything heavy or over worked himself at the gym, it had just come on one morning. The pain is very intense and limiting his movement, but there is nothing concerning and he is generally healthy. After questioning him further it turns out that he has a quarterly target to meet at work and he is behind, meaning he is working longer hours than usual. He also has a sick mother who lives in a different city, two hours away, who he visits most weekends. He has a wife and two children, who he is not seeing as much and is finding it difficult to take his children to their various clubs. He usually attends the gym twice a week, but hasn’t been able to find the time.’
The circumstances this man finds himself in are having a large emotional strain on him. He is under more pressure at work than usual and working longer hours. His mother being sick is also having an emotional impact on him and he is having to drive to see her at weekends, sitting in Friday traffic. He has his normal duties to attend to, but is finding it difficult and he is not getting as much downtime as usual. He misses seeing his wife and children as much and may feel guilty that he isn’t helping out as much as he normally would do. He is also sitting for longer periods, which is not good for our metabolism and general health. The combination of these events is having a psychological and physiological impact on him, which means he is under a lot more stress than usual. At some point something needs to change and if it doesn’t people often experience pain. It’s your body’s way of telling you to slow down, or get some help. There are physiological responses that lead to this, which I will also explain in a later blog.
For most people an acute episode of lower back pain will usually settle within a month or so. Usually because the pain has the desired effect and it makes someone change what they are doing, or get some sort of support. Sometimes it can develop into chronic (long-term) lower back pain. In my experience this is because we haven’t acknowledged what else is going on in someone’s life when the pain began, we have focused on the structure of someone’s back, even when the research shows that most of the time there is no known structural cause for lower back pain. Maybe, by being more aware of the psychosocial factors in someone’s pain, we can be more affective at preventing lower back pain and stopping long term problems?
If you are suffering with lower back pain or know someone suffering with lower back pain, my advice would be, rather than look for a physical reason for the pain, think about what is going on in your life at present or in the recent past, or if you have chronic pain think back to when the pain started. Has there, or was there a change in your circumstances that lead to there being more stress then usual? What was the emotional impact of this? Has it taken you out of your usual routine? By acknowledging this and then giving yourself more time out, it may help to reduce the pain and allow you to get back to normal more quickly.