Most lower back pain treated incorrectly


Tuesday, 03 April, 2018


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Low back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting an estimated 540 million people at any one time. Yet according to a new series in The Lancet, the condition is being mistreated, often against best practice treatment guidelines.

Evidence suggests that low back pain should be managed in primary care, with the first line of treatment being education and advice to keep active and at work.

However, in reality, a high proportion of patients worldwide are treated in emergency departments; they are encouraged to rest and stop work, and are commonly referred for scans or surgery or prescribed painkillers including opioids, which are discouraged for treating low back pain.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” explained Series author Professor Rachelle Buchbinder, Monash University, Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

The Series reviews evidence from high- and low-income countries that suggests that many of the mistakes of high-income countries are already well established in low- and middle-income countries. Rest is frequently recommended in low- and middle-income countries, and resources to modify workplaces are scarce.

“In many countries, painkillers that have limited positive effect are routinely prescribed for low back pain, with very little emphasis on interventions that are evidence based, such as exercises. As lower-income countries respond to this rapidly rising cause of disability, it is critical that they avoid the waste that these misguided practices entail,” added Series author Professor Nadine Foster, Keele University, UK.

The Global Burden of Disease study (2017) found that low back pain is the leading cause of disability in almost all high-income countries as well as central Europe, eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and parts of Latin America. Every year, a total of 1 million years of productive life is lost in the UK because of disability from low back pain; 3 million in the USA; and 300,000 in Australia.

The global burden of disability due to low back pain has increased by more than 50% since 1990, and is due to increase even further in the coming decades as the population ages.

Low back pain mostly affects adults of working age. Rarely can a specific cause of low back pain be identified so most is termed non-specific, and evidence suggests that psychological and economic factors are important in the persistence of low back pain. Most episodes of low back pain are short-lasting with little or no consequence, but recurrent episodes are common (about one in three people will have a recurrence within one year of recovering from a previous episode) and low back pain is increasingly understood as a long-lasting condition.

The authors say that healthcare systems should avoid harmful and useless treatments by only offering treatments in public reimbursement packages if evidence shows that they are safe, effective and cost-effective. They also highlight the need to address widespread misconceptions in the population and among health professionals about the causes, prognosis and effectiveness of different treatments for low back pain.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/ andriano_cz

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