Yealands Winery

Sticky back beliefs


ResearchBlogging.org
I get excited when I can write about New Zealand research! Especially when it’s done by a nice guy like Ben Darlow.
Ben’s just completed his PhD looking at the effect of what we say on people’s beliefs and behaviours when they have low back pain. And believe me, it’s not pretty! I think it’s David Butler from NOI who described the concept of “sticky” words, or words that have great power to influence beliefs about pain, and Ben’s research absolutely supports this.

What Ben and his colleagues did was survey 1000 New Zealanders using a postal survey. He used the Back Pain Attitudes Questionnaire (Back-PAQ), and, with a response rate of 602 (pretty good Ben!), worked to establish the relationship between attitudes and beliefs and (1) back pain experience and (2) health professional exposure. Respondents were from the New Zealand electoral roll, so were 18 years of age and older.

Unsurprisingly, Ben found that 87% (95% CI 84% to 90%) of people had experienced low back pain – yes, it’s very common – and that 27% (95% CI 24% to 31%) were experiencing back pain at the time of the survey.

Now, here’s the tough stuff: While 76% of people responding to this survey thought that their back was “one of the strongest parts of their body” and 78% thought that their back was “well designed”, and enormous 89% thought that their back was easy to injure and 95% believed that they could injure their back if they were not careful.

No wonder people rush off to see a health care provider when their backs hurt! And no wonder many people are too scared to move when they’re sore.

Worse than this, however, were the findings that 99% thought that good posture was important to protect the back, and 97% believed that they needed strong muscles. 94% of respondents believed that it was not safe to lift without bending the knees.  Thank YOU Mr Precious McKenzie and the ACC “Don’t use your back like a crane” messages from the 1980’s and 90’s!

Of course, just because people believe this does not mean they actually try to keep “good posture” or “strengthen muscles” or even lift with bent knees – but it goes to show how pervasive these erroneous beliefs can be in the general population.

One interesting finding that I think gives us a bit of hope: people who had been to see a health professional were more likely to believe it’s OK to remain active despite pain. Praise be!

What worries me is that public health interventions to promote remaining active despite back pain are few and far between. People still believe their backs need protecting, yet they can look at pictures of people doing amazingly strenuous activities with flexible and strong backs without reflecting that their own backs could be just as strong and flexible. Please oh please can we begin to recognise that backs were meant to be flexible, move and bend and twist and give us an enormous range of positions from which we can do things! And please, can we stop telling people they need to “lift properly”??!

Darlow, B., Perry, M., Stanley, J., Mathieson, F., Melloh, M., Baxter, G., & Dowell, A. (2014). Cross-sectional survey of attitudes and beliefs about back pain in New Zealand BMJ Open, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004725

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4 comments

  1. Bronnie, in the unlikely event that the manufacturer was offering trade-ins for those who believed they had not been given the “strong” back that they had expected to receive, how many people would take up the offer? Would a two-year warranty make the offer more attractive?

    The point I am trying to make is that “strong” and “weak” are “sticky” words that need to be carefully defined in relation to specific contexts. They could equally apply to the whole person rather than to his or her back.

  2. Good question about a warranty! Yes, I agree with your thoughts about the power of words and how they’re used in relation to people. I’d hope people would think of themselves as “strong”, “flexible”, “resilient”, and their backs just the same. Because hopefully, learning to live well involves being strong, flexible and resilient in the face of a range of different circumstances.

  3. Bronnie, “to live well” is yet another sticky concept. How about “… learning to make our way in an uncertain world involves being flexible and resilient in the face of a range of potentially threatening circumstances”?

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