What I found surprised me: Many of these approaches really do seem to help, though often with modest effects. But when you compare even those small benefits with the harm we’re currently doing while medically “treating” back pain, the horror of the status quo becomes clear. “No one dies of low back pain,” one back pain expert, University of Amsterdam assistant professor Sidney Rubinstein, summed up, “but people are now dying from the treatment.”
Mainstream medicine has failed people with chronic back pain
Lower back pain is one of the top reasons people go to the doctor in the US, and it affects 29 percent of adult Americans, according to surveys. It’s also the leading reason for missing work anywhere in the world. The US spends approximately $90 billion a year on back pain— more than the annual expenditures on high blood pressure, pregnancy and postpartum care, and depression — and that doesn’t include the estimated $10 to $20 billion in lost productivity related to back pain.
Doctors talk about back pain in a few different ways, but the kind most people (about 85 percent) suffer from is what they call “nonspecific low back pain.” This means the persistent pain has no detectable cause — like a tumor, pinched nerve, infection, or cauda equina syndrome.
About 90 percent of the time, low back pain is short-lived (or in medical lingo, “acute”) and goes away within a few days or weeks without much fuss. A minority of patients, though, go on to have subacute back pain (lasting between four and 12 weeks) or chronic back pain (lasting 12 or more weeks).
Chronic nonspecific back pain is the kind the medical community is often terrible at treating. Many of the most popular treatments on offer from doctors for chronic nonspecific low back pain — bed rest, spinal surgery, opioid painkillers, steroid injections — have been proven ineffective in the majority of cases, and sometimes downright harmful.
Consider opioids. In 2017, more than 30,000 Americans will die from opioid overdoses. Opioid prescribing is common among people with back pain, with almost 20 percent receiving long-term opioid prescriptions.
Here’s the outrageous part: All these opioids were being prescribed before we actually knew if they helped people with chronic lower back pain. It gets worse: Now high-quality evidence is coming in, and opioids don’t actually help many patients with chronic low back pain.
This soon-to-be-published randomized controlled trial was the first to compare the long-term use of opioids versus non-opioid medications (such as anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen) for low back pain. After a year, the researchers found opioids did not improve patients’ pain or function, and the people on opioids were actually in slightly more pain compared to the non-opioid group (perhaps the result of “opioid-induced hyperalgesia” — heightened pain brought on by these drugs).
As for surgery, only a small minority of patients with chronic low back pain require it, according to UpToDate, a service that synthesizes the best available research for clinicians. In randomized trials, there was no clinically meaningful difference when comparing the outcomes of patients who got spinal fusion (which has become more and more popular in the US over the years) with those who got a nonsurgical treatment.
Steroid injections for back pain, another popular medical treatment, tend to have similarly lackluster results: They improve pain slightly in the short term, but the effects dissipate within a few months. They also don’t improve patients’ long-term health outcomes.
It’s not entirely surprising that the surgeries, injections, and prescription drugs often fail considering what researchers are now learning about back pain.
Historically, the medical community thought back pain (and pain in general) was correlated to the nature and severity of an injury or anatomical issue. But now it’s clear that what’s going on in your brain matters too.
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