by Mary O’Keeffe and Dr. Kieran O’Sullivan, Department of Clinical Therapies, University of Limerick, Ireland

Body-mind interactions in low back pain

Low back pain (LBP) is exceptionally common. In fact, to not experience LBP at some point of your life would be abnormal. Many healthcare professionals have been trained to view the high incidence of LBP as either a terrible sign of the way we live in modern society (e.g. prolonged sitting) and/or the inherent fragility of our spine. Instead, LBP is like becoming tired or sad, which is perfectly natural to experience at some point in our lives. Usually, it only lasts a short period and people recover and go on to live a full and healthy life. Unfortunately, a small proportion of people experience LBP that either never goes away or returns so frequently that it has a big impact on their quality of life. In these cases, like among people with clinical depression or chronic fatigue, there is a need to step back and consider why this person has not recovered, as opposed to why most of us develop LBP at some point in our lives. Therefore, we are not convinced that we should be trying to “prevent” LBP in terms of aiming to get to a point where almost nobody in society gets LBP. Almost all of us will experience LBP at some point in our lives – as Nortin Hadler has said, LBP is one of the common “predicaments” of life which most of us will face. The more important question is how to ensure when someone gets LBP that it only lasts a very short period and doesn’t affect a person’s life on an ongoing basis. Key to this is the body-mind relationship in people with LBP, which LBP management has usually not addressed.

How is low back pain typically treated?

Healthcare – and society in general – has spent decades thinking that once we find an accurate diagnosis of a local tissue that is causing LBP, treatment of that specific local tissue will eliminate the pain. Unfortunately, what this has led to is more scans, more rehabilitation, more medications and more surgery. There is no denying the fact that the approaches we have taken to managing LBP in recent decades have had little benefit. This is not because LBP has become more prevalent – rather we have more unhelpful methods of frightening people in recent years e.g. through using high-tech imaging such as MRI scans inappropriately. In fact, it is likely that it is the interpretation of such tests which is the biggest problem. For example, it is very rare for an MRI of someone’s back not to show something such as disc degeneration. We used to think these things were always important, but it now looks like the things we see on MRI scans are a lot like finding some grey hair on your head or some wrinkles on your face…