Low Back Pain: GAPS between Guidelines and Practice

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Continuing with the second of three papers recently published in The Lancet regarding Low Back Pain. What guidelines are already in place, what’s actually occurring in practice and suggested solutions going forward.

What’s striking to me is the

clear evidence of substantial gaps between evidence and practice, that are pervasive

A few years after delving into this, I am still scratching my head how far behind we are in our medical and clinical practice given the evidence. Yet, I’m hopeful that as more and more of this gets into the public domain, much-needed momentum will begin to close the GAP. Particularly with the crisis we find ourselves in, the growing epidemic of opioid use which is literally, killing people.

What are the treatment guideline GAPS, as outlined in the paper?

Below are

study results of clinical practice and highlights the disparity between ten guideline recommendations and the reality of current health care.

Guideline Message: Low back pain should be managed in primary care.

Practice: in high-income, low-income, and middle-income settings, people with low back pain present to emergency departments or to a medical specialist.

Guideline Message: Provide education and advice.

Practice: in high-income, low-income, and middle-income settings this aspect of care is rarely provided.

Guideline Message: Remain active and stay at work.

Practice: in high-income, low-income, and middle-income settings, many clinicians and patients advocate rest and absence from work.

Guideline message: imaging should only occur if the clinician suspects a specific condition that would require different management to non-specific low back pain.

Practice: although such specific causes of low back pain are rare, in high-income, low-income, and middle-income settings, imaging rates are high.

Guideline message: first choice of therapy should be non-pharmacological.

Practice: surveys of care show that this approach is usually not followed.

Guideline message: most guidelines advise against electrical physical modalities (eg, short-wave diathermy, traction).

Practice: worldwide these ineffective treatments are still used by the professionals who administer physical therapies.

Guideline message: due to unclear evidence of efficacy and concerns of harm, the use of opioid analgesic medicines is now discouraged.

Practice: these medicines have been overused in some, but not all, high-income countries; low-income and middle-income countries seem to have very low rates of use.

Guideline message: interventional procedures and surgery have a very limited role, if any, in the management of low back pain.

Practice: these approaches are widely used in high-income countries, little evidence on their use is available for low-income and middle-income settings.

Guideline message: exercise is recommended for chronic low back pain.

Practice: clinician treatment preferences and health-care constraints limit uptake.

Guideline message: a biopsychosocial framework should guide management of low back pain.

Practice: the psychosocial aspects of low back pain are poorly managed in high-income, low-income, and middle-income settings.

As you can see, what’s recommended is not what’s being offered to people for treatment.

Though first line care is meant to be non-pharmacological,

a study from the USA showed that only about half of people with chronic low back pain are prescribed exercise. In Australian primary care and in the emergency department setting in Canada, the most common treatment is prescribed medication.

Then, there are the rates of imaging, even though it has a limited role to play (see previous post).

39% in Norway, 54% in the USA, 56% in Italy as three examples, presenting patients to emergency rooms are given imaging.

Even worse, opioids. Though data for effects of opioids for acute low back pain are sparse,

one study showed that they were prescribed for around 60% of emergency department presentations for low back pain in the USA.

And,

More than half the total number of people taking opioids long-term have low back pain though NO randomized controlled trial evidence is available about long-term effects. Well, we can see some of the short-term effects taking place across our countries at the moment.

In terms of surgery, which has “a limited role for low back pain”,

studies from the USA, Australia and the Netherlands show frequent use of spinal fusion.

So the waste to our healthcare system is apparent, but the bigger cost is what’s happening to the people who are provided these treatments that have shown to have little success. They seem stuck in what seems a never-ending loop of pain.

Key messages:

“Guidelines recommend self-management, physical and psychological therapies, and some forms of complementary medicine, and place less emphasis on pharmacological and surgical treatments, routine use of imaging and investigations is not recommended.

Little prevention research exists, with the only known effective interventions for secondary prevention being exercise, combined with education, and exercise alone.”

Where do we go from here?

“Promising solutions include focused implementation of best practice, the redesign of clinical pathways, integrated health and occupational care, changes to payment systems and legislation, and public health and prevention strategies.”

Current guidelines need to be utilized which we clearly see, they are not.  There needs to be better integrated education of health-care professionals including a change to the clinical-care model. Revamping the “current models of health-care reimbursement, which reward volume rather than quality”. Integration of health-care and occupation interventions so we can get people back to work and back to their lives. Changes to compensation and disability policies. Finally, public health interventions to change public’s beliefs and behaviors.

Which brings us to the last of the 3 papers, Low back pain: a call for action, up next on the blog.

Low Back Pain – What works and what doesn’t, according to the research.

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Previously I wrote about the first in a series of published papers in the Lancet regarding the global burden of disability caused by low back pain and why we need to pay attention. You can read it here.

The second paper, “Prevention and treatment of low back pain: evidence, challenges and promising directions” contains a lot of information so today I’ll begin with prevention and treatment while the next blog post will further explore current guidelines vs. what’s actually utilized in the global medical community.

My hope is perhaps you’ll come to see for yourself there are promising directions for those disabled and suffering from low back pain.

I. Prevention

Most of the widely promoted interventions to prevent low back pain do NOT have a firm evidence base.

A surprising statement, isn’t it? These include what you have likely been told over and over again to do, yet evidence of their success is not there. Strategies about workplace education, no-lift policies, ergonomic furniture, mattresses, back belts, lifting devices. How often have you heard about most or many of these in terms of how we might prevent low back pain?

What then, seems to work?

II. Treatments

First, is the recommended use of a biopsychosocial model.

I suggest most of the general public has never heard of this term or model of care. I surely didn’t just a couple years ago when I was first started to dig into the overarching problem of chronic or persistent pain that affects so many people.

What is this? Well, as often defined it encompasses “a dynamic interaction among and within the biological, psychological, and social factors unique to each individual.”  My emphasis on the ‘unique to each individual’, as that’s turning out to be an important piece of the complexity of pain.

Second, greater emphasis is needed on

  • Self-management
  • Physical and psychological therapies
  • Some forms of complementary medicine,

Along with less emphasis on

  • Pharmacological and surgical treatments.

What’s actually being utilized in our clinics?

Surprisingly, the treatments with less emphasis and effectiveness = pharmacological and surgical treatments.

Countries such as Denmark, the USA, and the UK do have guidelines around this. They are supposed to utilize exercise and a range of other nonpharmacological therapies such as massage, acupuncture, spinal manipulation, Tai Chi, and yoga.

Clinicians are meant to provide people with

  1. Advice and education about the nature of their pain;
  2. Reassurance that they do NOT have a serious disease and their symptoms will improve over time;
  3. Encouragement to stay active and continue with usual activities.

Self-Management

I understand even the notion of engaging in movement and exercise is difficult for people who are experiencing pain. How do you keep active when you are in pain? How much does advice, education, reassurance really help? People typically go to their health care providers and want something to ‘fix’ the problem. Not more advice. However, evidence shows this does help. And, evidence shows that the pharmaceuticals and surgeries we’ve come to rely on, don’t. In the long-term, particularly. If they worked, we wouldn’t find ourselves in this predicament.  Understanding that you have a part to play, in getting better, is critical. 

Movement or Exercise Therapy

Going back to the problem of trying to move, when you’re in pain. Something that people may or may not be familiar with is the term graded exposure. Basically, it means you start where you can, and gradually, over time, work to increase your overall capacity.

I tell my clients it will help to do even the smallest of movements. Use your imagination and even just visualize movement if you must, but you CAN start somewhere. Move your feet, or hands, or arms an inch, if that’s what you can do today. Just begin.

It has been shown to be useful if you can tie in your exercise or movement with something you want or need to do, rather than just some kind of exercise that is not motivational for you.

It’s not really so much WHAT you do, but that you DO something.

“Since evidence showing that one form of exercise is better than another is NOT available, guidelines recommend programmes that take individual needs, references, and capabilities into account in deciding about the type of exercise.

I use tools that yoga offers and work to help keep clients joints moving in all the many ranges of motion they might need in their life. This does not mean they need to have a life-long love or commitment to yoga.

Yet, yoga does offer an important first step of building awareness and subsequently using gentle movement, breath awareness, and tools to ‘ease into a movement’ that may have be feared in the past. People can learn to calm their nervous system, work in a safe pain-free range of motion (or not increase pain). From there we work to build stability strength and power in whatever it is they want to do … be that swimming, walking, biking, skiing, playing with kids, sitting at a desk all day. Whatever it is they want to do in their life.

Passive Therapies

It should be noted that some guidelines DO NOT recommend passive therapies, such as manipulation or mobilization (think chiropractor, massage, acupuncture). Some guidelines consider these short-term options, optional. The same goes for other passive treatments received in a physical therapists office like ultrasound, nerve stimulation, etc.

Though these passive types of therapy may help to temporarily feel better, they often have many returning again and again, becoming dependent on them for relief. Much of the current research shows the need to get a person ‘involved’ in the treatment. Get their brain and nervous system participating in movements or other practices, so passively ‘being worked on’ might not be a long-term solution.

Psychological Therapy

Guidelines also recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), progressive relaxation and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

This again is where yoga can play a part in terms of relaxation. I’ll often incorporate strategies from MBSR when working with clients.

Pharmacological Treatment

Guidelines now recommend pharmacological treatment ONLY following an inadequate response to (the above mentioned) first line non-pharmacological interventions.

Paracetamol was once the recommended first-line medicine for low back pain; however evidence of absence of effectiveness in acute low back pain and potential for harm has led to recommendations against its use.

Health professionals are guided to consider oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), taking into account risks …  and if using, to prescribe the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.

Routine use of opioids is NOT recommended, since benefits are small and substantial risks exists…

The role of gabaergic drugs, such as pregabaline, is now being reconsidered after a 2017 trial showed it to be ineffective for radicular pain … guidelines generally suggest consideration of muscle relaxants for short-term use, although further research is recommended.

Surgery

The role of interventional therapies and surgery is LIMITED and recommendations in clinical guidelines vary.

Recent guidelines DO NOT recommend spinal epidural injections or facet joint injections for low back pain… they DO NOT seem to provide long-term benefits or reduce the long-term risk of surgery and have been associated with serious adverse events.

Benefits of spinal fusion surgery … are similar to those of intensive multidisciplinary rehabilitation and only modestly greater than non-surgical management.

UK guidelines recommend that patients are not offered disc replacement or spinal fusion surgery for low back pain.

For spinal stenosis … patients tend to improve with or without surgery and therefore non-surgical management is an appropriate option for patients who wish to defer or avoid surgery.

So why the GAP between evidence and practice?

Stay tuned and we’ll look to see how this is played out and why it’s imperative that we change it.

 

 

 

Back Pain – There is Good News

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The bad news is you may have or know someone that is experiencing chronic or persistent back pain. The good news is, there is a way forward.

Yesterday, three important papers about back pain published in the Lancet (one of the world’s oldest and best known general medical journals) were referenced in the The Guardian, The Telegraph, the BBC News and the Daily Mail . So current evidence-based information, at last, making its way to the public domain.

In briefly reviewing the papers (published March 21, 2018), the key points for me are these:

Low back pain is now the leading cause of disability worldwide.

“Prevention of the onset and persistence of disability associated with low back pain requires recognition that the disability is inseparable from the social and economic context of people’s lives and is entwined with personal and cultural beliefs about back pain.”

“Most low back pain is unrelated to specific identifiable spinal abnormalities,”

Globally, gaps between evidence and practice exist, with limited use of recommended first-line treatments and inappropriately high use of imaging, rest, opioids, spinal injections, and surgery. Doing more of the same will not reduce back-related disability or its long-term consequences.”

“Recommendations include use of a biopsychosocial framework to guide management with initial nonpharmacological treatment, including education that supports self-management and resumption of normal activities and exercise,…”

Thank goodness this is getting the attention it deserves so it can help people who need it most. And that’s a LOT OF PEOPLE.

Why now, finally? I think it’s gaining traction due to spiraling health care costs along with the opioid crisis that is so prevalent.

Over the next while I’m going to break down and comment upon some of the points and principles presented in the papers, as many form the basis of my work.  In the meantime, if you care to read the papers yourself they can be found here.

Lorimer Moseley, one of the world’s top researchers on pain continues to make the related point that people need an understanding of what pain is and what it isn’t, as he does with a touch of humor in his TEDx Talk in 2011.  Professor Moseley is most known, however, for publishing 260+ papers on pain science and his continued work as Professor of Clinical Neurosciences and Chair of Physiotherapy at the University of South Australia. And one of many leading the charge globally in what he calls a Pain Revolution.

A huge paradigm shift is required as understandably, information about what works to treat back pain and what doesn’t is confusing.  It seems counter-intuitive to ask people who are in pain to ‘just move more”. As the latest interviews I’ve listened in to with Lorimer, he states that with what we’ve learned ‘recovery is, back on the table’.  There is hope. As I mentioned earlier, there is a way forward.

I talk about this all the time with family and friends … who often have a hard time believing what I describe as it is a change from what we have believed for most of our lifetime. 

But, if we really truly want to get people out of this pain cycle (and I will say most any pain cycle) we need to help with the understanding of what the evidence shows and how to best work with it. This will also require huge shifts in our public policy, etc. as stated in the Lancet papers.

“These potential solutions include focused strategies to implement best practice, the redesign of clinical pathways, integrated health and occupational interventions to reduce work disability, changes in compensation and disability claims policies, and public health and prevention strategies.”

So come along for the ride if you or anyone you know is experiencing chronic or persistent low back pain (or any pain, really).  With 1 in 5 experiencing chronic pain of some kind, unfortunately, you won’t have to look too far.