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What should we do about acute low back pain?


There’s no doubt that low back pain presents a major healthcare problem in all parts of the world. It’s probably the most common form of musculoskeletal pain around, it can be highly disabling – and its management is one of the most contentious imaginable. As someone once said “if there was an effective treatment for low back pain, there wouldn’t be such a range of treatments available!”

I want to take a step back and consider people living with nonspecific low back pain only, it’s by far the most prevalent, and while no-one would say there is a single diagnosis that can be applied to all forms of back pain, there seem to be some similarities in how this kind of pain responds.

What we’ve learned over the past year is that acetaminophen hardly touches the pain of nonspecific low back pain Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro et al, 2015). This means anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are the most likely group of medications to be prescribed, or perhaps codeine. Exercise was the recommended treatment for osteoarthritis of the hip and knee, suggesting that this approach might also be recommended for low back pain.

Turning to exercise, it seems that there is no clear indication that any particular type of exercise is any better than any other exercise for low back pain (not even motor control exercise)(Saragiotto, Maher, Yamato Tie, Costa et al, 2016), and all exercise improves pain and disability – and even recurrences (Machado, Bostick & Maher, 2013). What seems important is that people get moving again, and do so quickly after the onset of their back pain.

Graded exposure has also been in the news, latest being a study using graded exposure for elderly people living with chronic low back pain, where it was found to not only improve function (reduce disability) but also found to reduce pain (Leonhardt, Kuss, Becker, Basler et al, in press). OK, pain reduction wasn’t reduced a great deal, but neither have many treatments – and at least this one has few adverse effects and improves disability.

Where am I going with this?

Well, recently I made some apparently radical suggestions: I said that

  1. sub-typing low back pain doesn’t yet seem to be consistent;
  2. that no particular exercise type seems better than anything else;
  3. that ongoing disability is predicted more by psychosocial factors than by physical findings – even when injection treatments are used (van Wijk, Geurts, Lousberg,Wynne, Hammink, et al, 2008).
  4. that people with low back pain seem to get better for a while, and often find their back pain returns or grumbles along without any particular provocation;
  5. and that perhaps treatment should focus LESS on reducing pain (which doesn’t seem to be very effective) and LESS on trying to identify particular types of exercise that will suit particular people and MORE simply on graded return to normal activity.
  6. Along with really good information about what we know about low back pain (which isn’t much in terms of mechanics or anatomy, but quite a lot about what’s harmful and what doesn’t help at all), maybe all we need to do is help people get back to their usual activities.

For my sins I was asked not to remain involved in the group planning health system pathways (I also suggested maybe osteopaths, chiropractors, massage therapists and both occupational therapists and psychologists might also be good to be involved – maybe that was the radical part because I can’t see an awful lot radical about my other suggestions!).

Here’s my suggestion – when one of the most difficult aspects of low back pain management is helping people return to normal activities within their own environment (work, home, leisure), why not call in the experts in this area? I’m talking about YOU, occupational therapists! So far I haven’t been able to find a randomised controlled trial of occupational therapy graded exposure for low back pain. I’m sorry about this – it’s possibly a reflection of the difficulty there is in even suggesting that DOING NOTHING (ie not attempting to change the tissues, just helping people return to normal activity) might be an active form of treatment, and one that could work.

I don’t want to denigrate the wonderful work many clinicians do in the field of low back pain, but I suspect much of what seems to work is “meaning response” – well-meaning clinicians who believe in their treatments, patients who believe in their therapists, treatments that appear plausible within the general zeitgeist of “why we have low back pain”, all leading to a ritual in which people feel helped and begin to do things again.

Many of us have read Ben Darlow’s paper on The Enduring Impact of What Clinicians Say to People with Low Back Pain (Darlow, Dowell, Baxter, Mathieson, Perry & Dean, 2013). We have yet to count the cost of well-meaning clinicians feeding misinformed and unhelpful beliefs (and behaviours) to people with acute low back pain. I think the cost will be extremely high.

I just wonder if we might not be able to cut out much of the palaver about low back pain if we went directly to the “feeling helped and begin to do things again” without the misinformation and cost of the rituals involved. While other clinicians can contribute – the process of doing in the context of daily life is where occupational therapy research, experience and models have focused for the discipline’s history. That’s the professional magic of occupational therapy.

 

Darlow, B., Dowell, A., Baxter, G. D., Mathieson, F., Perry, M., & Dean, S. (2013). The enduring impact of what clinicians say to people with low back pain. Annals of Family Medicine, 11(6), 527-534. doi:10.1370/afm.1518

Leonhardt C, Kuss K, Becker A, Basler HD, de Jong J, Flatau B, Laekeman M, Mattenklodt P, Schuler M, Vlaeyen J, Quint S.(in press). Graded Exposure for Chronic Low Back Pain in Older Adults: A Pilot Study. Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy.

Macedo, L. G., Bostick, G. P., & Maher, C. G. (2013). Exercise for prevention of recurrences of nonspecific low back pain. Physical Therapy, 93(12), 1587-1591.

Machado, G. C., Maher, C. G., Ferreira, P. H., Pinheiro, M. B., Lin, C.-W. C., Day, R. O., . . . Ferreira, M. L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials (Vol. 350).

Saragiotto Bruno, T., Maher Christopher, G., Yamato Tiê, P., Costa Leonardo, O. P., Menezes Costa Luciola, C., Ostelo Raymond, W. J. G., & Macedo Luciana, G. (2016). Motor control exercise for chronic non-specific low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (1). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD012004/abstract doi:10.1002/14651858.CD012004

van Wijk, R. M. A. W., Geurts, J. W. M., Lousberg, R., Wynne, H. J., Hammink, E., Knape, J. T. A., & Groen, G. J. (2008). Psychological predictors of substantial pain reduction after minimally invasive radiofrequency and injection treatments for chronic low back pain. Pain Medicine, 9(2), 212-221.

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Gone fishin’


Easter break – and I’ve gone fishin’

Back next week with more from Healthskills. Don’t forget that you can subscribe to my blog, you can send comments and ask questions, make topic requests and connect with me via Facebook (Bronnie Lennox Thompson), Twitter (@adiemusfree), Tumblr: Miss Miche’s Mother, and LinkedIn: Bronnie Lennox Thompson. Introduce yourself via my “About” page, and enjoy browsing the many posts I’ve put up over the last 8 years.

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sentinals at dawn

evening at Marble Hill

Hey, hey, which way? Future directions for Healthskills


It’s a new year and 8 years since I began Healthskills. I’m ready to review what people want from me – are you up for it?

When I began there were very few blogs on chronic pain, and I wanted to give good, scientific information on pain management for all those people who can’t access the research as easily as I can. I also wanted to make sure that the content was useful, could help people who were first beginning to work in pain management some of the information they might not have learned in their training (or postgraduate training even!). Things have changed in the past 8 years, there are many more blogs around and a lot more discussion about the practicalities of using modern pain science in the clinic. Is what I write relevant? Is it useful? Does it fill a gap? What would YOU like from me? Now’s your chance! The poll will be open for two weeks only.

 

Podcast from Karen Litzy (Healthy, Wealthy and Wise) – and me!


I haven’t done a lot of interviews, but even if I had, this one is very special. Karen is a warm, funny and very human interviewer who isn’t afraid to show who she is – even if I made her cry! (well, I didn’t actually make her cry, but she did need to wipe a tear or two away!).

Listen to this and then go off to iTunes to rate it (I hope you’ll give it a good one!)

http://podcast.healthywealthysmart.com/

The joy of running flat out along the beach - is there anything more freeing?!

Teams, roles, and contributions


ResearchBlogging.org
I’m quite keen to generate some more discussion about how individual professions can contribute within Interdisciplinary/Interprofessional Team without being defensive of their contribution, nor allowing other disciplines to encroach on their specialist skills.
I really struggle with the whole concept of “role definition” because so often I see “the OT role is…” without considering that there are a number of core areas many health professionals in pain management use such as goal setting, relaxation, pain “education”, activity pacing/management, relaxation, biofeedback, cognitive behavioural therapy.

Some examples: Once I heard an occupational therapist say that only occupational therapists should “set functional goals”. Yet if goal-setting is client-centred, I can see how physiotherapists, nurses, social workers, psychologists and doctors can ALL work with a person to “set functional goals”.

I also heard an occupational therapist suggest that “only” occupational therapists should go into the home, or workplace. Yet I’ve had some fabulous physiotherapists and psychologists go into both these places and do fantastic work.

The current debate is whether occupational therapists or physiotherapists should do mirror therapy or laterality training.

Sadly I also heard of a doctor who told the interdisciplinary team that he thought it was fine to advise a person to begin a walking programme – without consulting a physiotherapist! Oh no! How dare he! Actually, isn’t this what many nonmedical clinicians have been wanting our doctors to do? And if a physiotherapist begins talking about function in the real world, isn’t this what occupational therapists have been saying physiotherapy doesn’t do but should? Seems to me we don’t recognise our own cognitive dissonance even when it’s sitting right in front of us.

To be quite honest – I don’t care WHO does what! As long as a clinician is competent, the client has had a hand in establishing priorities, and there aren’t two clinicians doing exactly the same work, to me it does not matter.
BUT I’d love to find out some other points of view, and poke holes in my assumptions – so, go to it ladies and gentlemen!

Someone asked me “so what are the skills people should have to work in chronic pain management?”

  1. I’m thinking about this right now – firstly, people who “get” pain. So well-educated, knowledgeable people who have a really good grasp on neurobiology and psychology of pain. I don’t really care about the professional background, but I’d like someone who can reassure patients/clients that their pain (a) has a name (b) doesn’t mean its harmful (c) can be managed. I would help if one person in the team can prescribe rationally.
  2. Someone should address movement and pain – don’t care if it’s an occupational therapist, physiotherapist, exercise physiologist or whatever. Best if this person can grade movement from simple/low intensity to higher and definitely functional intensity. And critically, that person needs to know the relevance of any exercise on what the client/patient does in daily life.
  3. Someone else needs to talk about the meaning of pain on the sense of self, and help the person understand that doing things differently doesn’t mean losing your self concept.
  4. It would be good to have someone who understands behaviour, and interactions between behaviour, emotions and cognitions.
  5. Absolutely, someone in the team needs to help the person identify what they WANT to, or NEED to do to feel complete, then help the person work out ways to do that.
  6. And I think it’s vital someone can interpret psychometrics, and knows enough about outcome measurement to produce regular reports on how participants in pain management are doing once they leave the service.

And all the other things like using biofeedback, diet, relaxation, communication, health literacy, would need to be incorporated by those will skills in these areas.

I think teams need someone who will bat for them in management, someone who really cares about the team and how it functions, and will wave the flag in terms of retaining an interdisciplinary self management focus, ensuring the team remains client-focused and team-focused, rather than discipline-focused.

Teams need to negotiate their contributions (note I say contributions not “roles” – contributions are offered, roles are defined and possessive). Team members need to renegotiate what they can offer when new team members join the team, or when a team member develops a new skill. Defining one “role” means, implicitly, that other roles are also “defined”. Sometimes this happens without negotiation. And if role definitions are not regularly reviewed, innovation and responsiveness drops, positions get reified – and we end up with a cookbook approach to pain management that means the personal relationship between the person who has pain and his or her clinicians is valued less highly than the professional title of the clinician. I don’t see this as client-centredness.

One argument for defining roles is to avoid duplicating skills. It’s intended to ensure “the right clinician with the right skills sees the right patient at the right time”. I think this ignores the common skills all clinicians working in chronic pain management need. It ignores individual team member development. It means clinicians who are not “meant” to do the tasks nominated within another role’s definition can’t develop their skills to support one another within the team. It creates barriers and obstacles to developing a common language, using a common model (cognitive behavioural approach, in the case of chronic pain management), developing common goals. It can lead to multidisciplinary practice instead of interdisciplinary/interprofessional teamwork.

It can, unintentionally, create over-servicing because instead of selecting clinicians to work together on the basis of what the client/patient needs, professional demarcation lines are drawn and THREE clinicians need to work with the client/patient instead of two. Maybe even more because if the person needs to develop communication skills at work – maybe the occupational therapist “should” work on this; if the person needs to develop effective communication at home – maybe the social worker “should” be involved; maybe it “should” be the psychologist because it’s about the person’s core schema. See how complex this can become? It’s even more difficult if we look at activity management. Should the occupational therapist be involved because it’s about occupation? Or the psychologist because it’s about contingencies and core schema? Or the physiotherapist because it’s about building exercise tolerance? Or the social worker because it’s about negotiating boundaries with other people?

Teamwork – more than a group of clinicians who happen to work with the same patient.

 
Sandra G Leggat (2007). Effective healthcare teams require effective team members:
defining teamwork competencies BMC Health Services Research, 7 (17), 1-10 : 10.1186/1472-6963-7-17