Following on from my previous blog on the papers published early this year in the medical journal the Lancet, this second blog looks at some of the other important messages from this key research. If you haven’t already read these papers then here is a link to the Lancet’s website where you can find them: https://www.thelancet.com/series/low-back-pain
One of the other and most significant messages that came out of these research papers was:
‘For nearly all people with low back pain, it is not possible to identify a specific nociceptive cause’ Hartvigsen et al (2018)
What this means is that for most people suffering with lower back pain, we don’t know the structural cause of the pain. This may sound crazy, but for the majority of people, doctors and other healthcare professionals are not able to diagnose the structural cause of their lower back pain. If you’re reading this and you have lower back pain you may have been told, that your pain is due to a structural change such as a slipped or bulging disc or it is due to degenerative changes in your spine. Although you may have been told this, these are not the cause of the pain. The reason why these aren’t the cause of the pain is because these structural changes occur naturally in everyone, even people who are pain free. Numerous MRI studies have now been conducted on thousands of people who don’t have lower back pain. What they have found is that a high percentage of these people had bulging discs, disc extrusions and osteoarthritis in their facet joints, but they were pain free and leading an active life. So if structural changes are the cause of pain, surely these people should be in pain as well?
Two examples of these studies are:
Matsumoto et al (2013) found that MRI scans showed degenerative changes [including protrusions, compressions and stenosis] in both the lumbar (lower back) and cervical spine (neck) in 78.7% of the asymptomatic volunteers. In another study, lumbar MRI of asymptomatic volunteers (age 14–82, mean age 46) showed 60% had bulges, 45% had protrusions, 31% had extrusions, 76% had annular fissures, 76% had nuclear degeneration (Kim et al., 2013). There are more studies that I have included on my website, you can follow this link to see their conclusions: http://bristolpainreliefcentre.co.uk/are-you-in-pain/useful-information/
One of the other conclusions of the Lancet papers was that we are doing far too many MRI scans of people’s lower backs and that by doing unnecessary scans it can make people’s pain worse. This is because when people find out they have a prolapsed disc or narrowing of their disc space, they naturally become more protective of their back. This can increase the protective pain response and also means people start to do less, which isn’t good. A study comparing people who had an MRI scan shortly after the onset of their back pain compared to people who didn’t have one, found the ones who did have an MRI scan had their back pain for a longer period of time (Webster et al., 2013).
There are some cases when further investigation is definitely warranted. In these cases it is to rule out serious spinal pathology including vertebral fractures, Axial spondyloarthritis, Malignancy, Infections and Cauda Equina (Hartvigsen et al., 2018). If you have one of these conditions then you will more than likely be experiencing symptoms that a physiotherapist or doctor would recognise as needing further investigation. So it’s always good to checked by your GP if you are unsure of whether you need a scan or not, but remember, if your GP thinks you don’t, it’s not just because they are trying to save money, it’s because it is unnecessary and may actually make things worse.
If you read part 1 of this blog, I explain how it is more likely that the pain is being caused by what is happening in our lives, the emotional impact this has on us and how we adapt because of it. This leads to physiological responses, such as your muscles tightening up in your back, an enhanced pain response in your central nervous system, as well as adaptive changes in the neuro-endocrine and immune system. Although at this stage I can’t say for sure, back pain is more likely due to a combination of physiological responses, triggered by life events, rather than a structural problem with your back.
The good news is that these changes are not permanent and most back pain settles on its own, without the need for medication, injections or surgery. If you have back pain have a think about what has been going on in life recently, has been there been anything that has had an emotional impact or anything thing that has caused you to change your normal routine? If so, try to get back into your usual routine and stay active, it’s better to keep moving than to rest. Using some stress management techniques such as meditation and therapeutic writing may also be helpful.
Kim et al (2013)Prevalence of disc degeneration in asymptomatic Korean subjects. Part 1: lumbar spine. Journal of the Korean Neurosurgical Society (PMID: 23440899)
Matsumoto et al (2013)Tandem age-related lumbar and cervical intervertebral disc changes in asymptomatic subjects. European Spine Journal (PMID: 22990606), 2013, 708–13.
Webster et al (2013) Iatrogenic Consequences of Early Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Acute, Work-Related, Disabling Low Back Pain Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2013 Oct 15; 38(22): 1939–1946