Have you ever wondered why there are so many treatments for low back pain? Like there are actually hundreds of different ways to “treat” back pain… yet the truth is, none of them work for everyone. Actually, most of them seem to help pass the time until low back pain settles of its own accord. Until it’s back again (no pun intended!).
This post is prompted after reading a string of general news articles discussing the common non-specific low back pain – under various guises of “dead butt syndrome“, “Dr Tom: Ouch I’ve hurt my back” and the like – I think it’s time for a frank discussion about the natural history of low back pain, as found in large epidemiological studies. There’s no doubt that low back pain is a problem around the world, and I think it’s partly due to unmet expectations (along with a whole lot of other variables). The Global Burden of Disease found low back pain to be the most common reason for days lived with disability around the world – that’s more than anaemia, depression, hearing loss, migraine!
Dunn, Hestbaek & Cassidy (2013) examined the prevalence of low back pain across the life span – they found that many of us view low back pain as a simple “yes/no” question – do you have it, or don’t you. They point out that people with no back pain at the time of a survey are not all the same: some might never have had a bout ever, while some might have had several bouts but just don’t have one right now. These presentations are not the same! Those who have had a previous episode will have developed an understanding of back pain on the basis of what happened, and this will influence their expectations, and subsequent response, to treatments.
Dunn, Hestbaek & Cassidy found that children/adolescents have a point prevalence (ie at the time of the survey, they reported they had back pain) of 12%. As people get older the prevalence continues to be around 12%. The elderly, those over 60 (that doesn’t really feel old to me!), seem to have a prevalence similar to people in middle age, and activities affected by low back pain seem to increase as we age.
Given the lifetime prevalence of low back pain is around 80% (or more), following people up over time seems to paint a different picture from the point prevalence studies: it’s not the same 12% of people that has low back pain all the time. Some studies show that at least 40% of people do recover within a year of an episode (see Hestbaek, Leboeuf-Yde, & Manniche, 2003). A Danish study with 5 year follow-up found around 23% of people consistently reported no pain days during the previous year (during the study) but around 10% reported more than 30 days of back pain every time they were asked. So, while long-term low back pain isn’t common in the adult population, most people do have a couple of bouts over long periods of time.
What are the risk factors? Well one clear risk factor is having had a previous episode, although this isn’t a consistent predictor for long-term back pain. Perhaps we should take a look more closely at the natural course of acute neck and low back pain – from the Norwegian longitudinal studies. From one city in Norway, these researchers screened 9056 people between 20 – 67 years old to identify those with a brand new bout of neck or back pain in the previous month – 219 people were identified, then followed for 12 months. What these researchers found was pain decreasing rapidly in the first month, irrespective of treatment, thereafter though, back pain didn’t change for the rest of the year especially for those with pain in the neck as well as the back at the first assessment, and for those who had 4 or more pain sites in the beginning.
Now what’s really interesting about this study is that the pain reduction people experienced, particularly in low back pain, was pretty close to the pain reduction people achieved whether they had treatment, or not. Hmmmm. Next question: what if we look at all the treatments people get, and those who are in the control group, and pooled that information to find out what happens? Artus, van der Windt, Jordan & Croft examined whether just taking part in a study on low back pain might influence outcomes – so they pooled 70 RCTs and 19 cohort studies, and both sets of data showed “a rapid improvement in the first six weeks followed by a smaller further improvement until 52 weeks. there was no statistically significant different in pooled standardised mean change (a measure used to compared the pooled within-group change in pain in RCTs with cohort studies) – get this, at any time point.
But wait, there’s more!
Axen & Leboeuf-Yde (2013) looked at the trajectories of low back pain over time. They summarised four studies in primary care or the general population, finding that over the course of between 12 weeks and 12 months, participants could be divided into two to four groups: one group remained uncomfortable, perhaps staying that way over the whole 12 months (around 10 – 21%); one group also remained uncomfortable but they reported their pain as “moderate” or “mild” – around 36%; another approximately 30% experienced fluctuating or intermittent low back pain; and finally, the group we love – those who recovered and remained that way, around 30 – 58%.
This is not the picture we hear in the media. This is not what we were taught. And yes, I know there are problems with pooled data because individualised responses get ironed out. But what all this says to me is – our patients come to us expecting that low back pain should completely resolve. The reality is that for a lot of people, back pain will come and go throughout the lifetime.
What does this mean to me?
Isn’t it time to give people an idea that if they have a bout of back pain, chances are high they’ll have another. Complete resolution of low back pain may not occur for a large number of people. A new bout of low back pain may not mean a new “injury” (given we don’t know why many people develop back pain in the first place). Learning to self-manage a bout of back pain is likely to save people a load of heartache, not to mention a lot of money. And maybe it’s the latter that means it’s very hard to find clear, effective messages about just how safe a painful back is. It’s far easier to sell a message of vulnerability, of the need for treatment for that “unhappy spine” as a chiropractor in Christchurch calls it. And of course, if we continue to allow the expectation that all pain should be gone, we’re going to be in business for a very long time…
Artus, M., van der Windt, D., Jordan, K.P., & Croft, P.R. (2014). The clinical course of low back pain: A meta-analysis comparing outcomes in randomised clinical trials (rcts) and observational studies. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 15, 68.
Axén, I., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2013). Trajectories of low back pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 601-612. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.berh.2013.10.004
Dunn, K.M., Hestbaek, L., & Cassidy, J.D. (2013). Low back pain across the life course. Best Practice & Research in Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 591-600.
Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Engberg M, Lauritzen T, Bruun NH, Manniche C. (2003). The course of low back pain in a general population. Results from a 5-year prospective study. Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics, 26(4):213–9.
Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Manniche C. (2003). Low back pain: what is the long-term course? A review of studies of general patient populations. European Spine Journal, 12(2):149–65.
Vasseljen, O., Woodhouse, A., Bjorngaard, J.H., & Leivseth, L. (2013). Natural course of acute neck and low back pain in the general population: The HUNT study. Pain, 154(8), 1237-1244.