Back pain: how to live with one of the world’s biggest health problems | Society | The Guardian
This month, the Lancet published a series of three papers written by a large, international group of experts who came together to raise awareness of the extent of the problem of low back pain and the evidence for recommended treatments. The authors were scathing about the widespread use of “inappropriate tests” and “unnecessary, ineffective and harmful treatments”.
The papers tell us low back pain is an “extremely common symptom, experienced by people of all ages”, although it peaks in mid-life and is more common in women than in men. There are 540 million people affected globally at any one time and it is the main cause of disability worldwide.
The six-year investigation that began as an attempt to find relief from her own pain and ended up exposing an exploitative, corrupt and evidence-free $100bn industry, is fittingly described in the title of her book: Crooked.
The camera lies … MRI scans show up disc degeneration but unfortunately most people will have some. Photograph: HadelProductions/Getty Images
The proliferation of unnecessary and risky interventions has been far worse in the US, with its insurance-based healthcare system, than in the NHS. But the UK is far from immune. When a healthcare system functions as a marketplace, there will inevitably be incentives for certain treatments to be pursued over others, for services that can generate a surplus. It is a struggle for patients and clinicians everywhere to resist pain medication that is incredibly effective in the short term, even if it is incredibly harmful in the long term.
“Nearly everybody gets back pain at some point in their life,” says Martin Underwood, co-author of the Lancet series, a GP and a professor at Warwick Medical School. “For most people, it’s a short-term episode that will resolve over a period of days or weeks, without the need for any specific treatment. They catch or twist or stretch something, and it’s awful, and then it gets better.” Of those who experience a new episode of back pain, under 1% will have serious causes that need specific treatment for issues such as cancer in the spine, a fracture, diseases or infection, he says. But there is another group, in which, “after the natural period of healing – normally six weeks for most things – people go on to get pain lasting months and years, which can be very disabling, even though the original cause of the pain is no longer there. We would label this as nonspecific low back pain, simply because we don’t know what is causing the pain.”
“At best, these spine surgeons define success as a 38% improvement in pain and function,” says Ramin, “but if a hip or a knee surgeon had a 38% success rate, that physician would no longer do that surgery. And 38%? I think that’s really optimistic.” In her book, she describes the scandal of the Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, California, which carried out more than 5,000 spinal fusion surgeries. “Surgeries were being performed on large numbers of patients who were often immigrants – Spanish-speaking labourers – and being billed to workers’ compensation insurance or public health insurance. Could you do worse than butcher these Latino field workers who don’t understand what’s happening to them, but are being told they can get free medical care?”
We like to think that this could never happen in the UK, and Underwood admits there is a huge difference between the two healthcare systems. “Most spinal surgeons in the UK will avoid operating for nonspecific low back pain because they’re aware of all these problems,” he says. “But there is still pressure from patients for something to make them better, and some people are still getting operated on. My advice for anybody is: don’t have surgery for back pain unless there is a clear, specific indication.”
When I ask Underwood what works, he tells me: “Whatever you do for a patient at a time when their back is really bad, the chances are they’re going to be a lot better three weeks later. So we treat people and we see them getting better and we ascribe their improvement to the treatment we’ve given, but we know that natural improvement over time is always much larger than the positive effect you get from the treatment.” The evidence is strongest for therapist-delivered interventions such as the cognitive behavioural approach, based on the same principles as CBT, exercise treatment and physiotherapy. He has also worked on a trial that showed training physiotherapists to deliver the cognitive behavioural approach in a group, combining movement and reassurance about movement, is helpful to patients and could be delivered in the NHS at low cost.