More than 31 million Americans experience back pain on any given day. In fact, back pain is so common it is now the leading cause of disability globally. But if you thought even the best pain killers could help treat your aches and pains, you may be sorely (pun intended) mistaken.
Lower back pain treatments — including painkillers, scans, injections, and surgeries — have been deemed ineffective by a team of international health experts. In three papers published in the medical journal The Lancet, international authors say vast numbers of people with lower back pain are being harmed, not helped, by current treatments.
What people with back pain really need is exercise and to return to work and their normal life, experts say. "The burden from low back pain has reached a tipping point where the condition is growing rapidly, is poorly understood, and is being mismanaged medically — at cost both to the patient and to the healthcare system," said Professor Rachelle Buchbinder, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher at Monash University in Australia.
Back pain is becoming more common due to our aging population, as well as our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Almost everyone will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives, health experts say. Though we once thought painkillers and bed rest were the best way to treat a sore lower back, they're actually not helping at all. If you're sure you've felt some pain relief in your back from taking Ibuprofen, you're only probably experiencing a placebo effect, says Professor Buchbinder.
So why are doctors still prescribing these treatments if they're ineffective or even harmful? The current treatments were introduced before large research was done into the topic, and doctors had to rely on anecdotal experience, Professor Buchbinder told the Australia Broadcasting Company. "Over time, these things have been tested in rigorous studies and either they don't work at all compared to placebo or they have recognized harms."
So if the manner in which we are treating back pain now is harming us, what should we be doing? Professor Buchbinder says back pain should not be treated as an "injury," but as an issue that comes and goes, and in many cases, can be effectively managed through less-invasive physical and psychological therapies.
What are the causes of lower back pain?
Professor Buchbinder says a lot of lower back pain that causes disability occurs because of lifestyle choices. "We know disabling low back pain is over-represented in people with low socioeconomic status. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, and low levels of activity are all associated with the recurrence of low back pain; so those things are very important to address," said Professor Buchbinder.
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This article was written by Bettina Tyrrell. For more, check out our sister site, Now to Love.