Low back pain, the scourge of mankind: it is the second leading cause of disability here in the United States, and the fourth worldwide. It’s also one of the top five medical problems for which people see doctors. Almost every day that I see patients, I see someone with back pain. It’s one of the top reasons for lost wages due to missed work, as well as for healthcare dollars spent, hence, a very expensive problem.
Looking at two kinds of back pain
Let’s talk about the most common forms of back pain: acute (which lasts less than four weeks) and subacute (which lasts four to 12 weeks). Most of these cases (approximately 85%) are due to harmless causes. We lump them into the “mechanical back pain” diagnosis, which includes muscle spasm, ligament strain, and arthritis. A handful (3% to 4%) will be due to potentially more serious causes such as herniated discs (“bulging” discs), spondylolisthesis (“slipped” discs), a compression fracture of the vertebra due to osteoporosis (collapsed bone due to bone thinning), or spinal stenosis (squeezing of the spinal cord due to arthritis). Rarely, less than 1% of the time, we will see pain due to inflammation (such as ankylosing spondylitis), cancer (usually metastases), or infection.
When someone with acute low back pain comes into the office, my main job is to rule out one of these potentially more serious conditions through my interview and exam. It is only when we suspect a cause other than “mechanical” that we will then order imaging or labs, and then things can go in a different direction.
But most of the time, we’re dealing with a relatively benign and yet really painful, disabling, and expensive condition. How do we treat this? The sheer number of treatments is dizzying, but truly effective treatment options are few.
Analyzing a range of treatments for low back pain
The American College of Physicians (ACP), the second-largest physician group in the U.S., recently updated guidelines for the management of low back pain. Its physician researchers combed through hundreds of published studies of non-interventional treatments of back pain, and analyzed the data. Treatments included medicines such as acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen), opioids (such as oxycodone), muscle relaxants, benzodiazepines (such as lorazepam and diazepam), antidepressants (like fluoxetine or nortriptyline), anti-seizure medications (like Neurontin), and systemic corticosteroids (like prednisone). The analysis also included studies on non-drug treatments including acupuncture, mindfulness-based stress reduction, tai chi, yoga, motor control exercise (working the muscles that support and control the spine), progressive relaxation, biofeedback, low-level laser therapy, behavior based therapies, or spinal manipulation for low back pain.
That’s a lot of therapies!
Researchers were interested in studies that measured the effectiveness (usually measured as pain relief and physical functioning) as well as the harms of all these therapies.
Drugs are not part of the latest recommendations for treating “mechanical” back pain
What the researchers found was surprising: for acute and subacute low back pain, the best and safest treatments are not medicines. The ACP made the following strong recommendation:
Most patients with acute or subacute low back pain improve over time regardless of treatment and can avoid potentially harmful and costly treatments and tests. First-line therapy should include nondrug therapy, such as superficial heat, massage, acupuncture, or spinal manipulation. When nondrug therapy fails, consider NSAIDs or skeletal muscle relaxants.
Because most mechanical back pain improves no matter what, we don’t want to prescribe treatment that can cause harm. Because some medications carry significant risks, we really shouldn’t be recommending these right off the bat. Rather, we should be providing guidance on heating pad or hot water bottle use, and recommendations or referrals to acupuncturists, massage therapists, and chiropractors. These therapies were somewhat effective, and are very unlikely to cause harm.
Even the nonprescription pain relievers are not risk free
Medicines like ibuprofen and naproxen can be helpful, but they can cause stomach inflammation and ulcers, as well as possible bleeding, and even kidney damage, especially in the elderly. Muscle relaxants can be sedating, and can interact with other common medications. Benzodiazepines and opiates not only can cause sedation, making it hard to think clearly and function normally, they are also addictive. Basically, for acute and subacute low back pain, the risks of these medications outweigh the benefits. Other medications, like acetaminophen, steroids, antidepressants, and anti-seizure medications, were not significantly helpful for acute and subacute low back pain at all.
Here’s what the study couldn’t tell us
The study was missing a few potentially helpful low-risk medicines. Topicals such as the lidocaine patch or capsaicin ointment were not included, which is a shame, as these can provide relief for some people, and carry little risk. I would also be interested to know if over-the-counter topical therapies containing menthol and camphor are better than placebo for low back pain. Suggestions for the future research, and the next update!
I plan to write about chronic low back pain (and chronic pain in general) in a future post, because there was a guideline update for that specific issue as well.
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