These are notes from a presentation given at the Skeptical Society of St. Louis Skepticamp on Saturday, September 14, 2013. Links to some of the resources and studies mentioned during the presentation, as well as additional links that may be of interest, are provided for those who would like to look at them.
A Skeptical Look at Back Pain: Notes from Skepticamp 2013
In 1995 I was working at St. Mary’s hospital when I heard about this study which examined 98 people who had no low back pain (LBP) and found that a large percentage had herniated discs. ("asymptomatic" means without symptoms i.e. no pain)
98 asymptomatic individuals ages 20 – 80
36% normal discs at all levels
52% bulging disc at at least 1 level
38% abnormal at more than one level
Findings similar in men & women
Abnormalities increased with age
Images – 21 yr. old man & 24 yr. old woman
I thought this would rock the world of pain management. It didn’t.
An earlier study in 1989 study looked at 67 asymptomatic individuals.
31% had disc abnormalities or abnormal spinal canal
7 year follow-up – 50 responded, 31 had repeat MRIs
MRI not predictive of low back pain
More recently: March 14, 2013 New England Journal of Medicine
Early MRI may actually lead to worse outcomes:
One reason may be belief reinforcement
Pain education is not a magic bullet but can reduce pain and even prevent pain.
What can you do?
Educate yourself about pain. Lorimer Moseley is a pain science missionary. He is very funny and he is brilliant. Watch his videos!
The book Explain Pain by Butler and Moseley is a must-read for anyone with pain or anyone who works with people in pain. If you don’t want to buy it, your library can get it on the interlibrary loan system. Better yet, request that your library get it in their system.
Use graded exposure to cultivate successful movement. Motion is lotion!
Gentle manual therapy can help your body to relax and turn down the volume on pain.
Don’t panic! Most back pain is self-limiting.
Recommended reading for people who like geeky academic papers and studies on pain.
Pain and the Neuromatrix in the Brain by Melzack
Very detailed paper titled, simply, “Pain,” by Melzack and Katz. Not easy reading but describes the history and evolution of recent pain science – where we’ve been, where we are now.
Thanks to the St. Louis Skeptical Society for allowing me to speak at Skepticamp!