The 'false message' given to people suffering back pain

Last updated: 06-07-2020

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The 'false message' given to people suffering back pain

Too many Australians are in pain.

According to a newly released Global Pain Index, up to 97 per cent of the population are affected by pain with 86 per cent experiencing lower back pain specifically.

Back pain alone is believed to cost the healthcare system $4.8 billion each year and the cost to those suffering is also great - from quality of life to seeking treatment to longevity. 

Research has revealed that millions of Australians are wasting their money on medications, which increase the risk of other health issues and offer "very limited" short-term pain relief.

As guidelines shift away from pharmacological treatments towards self-management techniques, like exercise, relaxation and stress-reduction, an abundance of apps have flooded the market claiming to cure back pain. 

But, of more than 700 apps available, none have the answer and can make that claim say the researchers of a new study. 

"There have been so many technological approaches to treat various health conditions out there and there are many apps available to treat health conditions," explained lead researcher Gustavo Machado from the University of Sydney's School of Public Health. "So we decided to see if the apps for back pain were of good quality."

They whittled down the apps on iTunes and Google Play to 61 that pledged to help self-manage back pain.

 "Generally they were low quality apps," Machado said.

While some had "promising features", apps are not regulated and many provided incorrect information.

"Sometimes they recommend people stay in bed or they recommend people stop doing some movements - there is no evidence that this or that movement causes back pain - that information is not supported by research," Machado said.

Additionally, many did not provide educational information, which is considered important component of treatment. 

"A lot of people have concerns about their back - some people think their back is fragile, some people think they have a very serious condition happening," Machado explained. "All that creates anxiety and distress and that can exacerbate the symptoms. Once they're educated that that's not the case, the patient has much better outcomes."

Similarly, none of the apps had been tested for efficacy. 

"The main issue is that app developers claim they will provide pain relief to patients - they give this false message to patients," Machado said. "This is not the case, because the app has not been tested. It has the potential but it has not been tested for that.

"That prompted us to do this review - to warn patients that these claims of quick pain relief is probably not true and patients should not solely rely on the apps."

Rather, Machado advises people to seek advice from their health care professional.

– Stretch over strength. "Strength you need to have ... but it is lack of stretch that cobbles you over and it is lack of stretch that tethers you into the repetitive stooped postures of function," says Key, who is a strong advocate of yoga.

– Decompression. Lie with a back block or yoga brick between the shoulder blades to reverse the extended hunching in front of a computer that we do.

– Don't rely on the gym to get you through. Jarring, repetitive movements offer "diminishing returns", Key says, and constant contracting of muscles can even exacerbate a problem.

– FInd a good, firm bed. "We used to sleep on skins on the floor."

– Keep calm. A worldwide study of centenarians found a common character trait was calmness. Key says we shouldn't underestimate its importance to our health.

– Find a good physio or masseuse with good hands. Find the point of pain and prise it free. "When they find the pain it is no longer hiding in your spine and holding you to ransom."

– Breathe properly — through the nose. "Good breathing is another casualty of a stressful life," Key says, explaining poor breathing uses the accessory muscles in the neck and can result in pain.

– Centre yourself through meditation for stress relief.

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