The Surprising New Way To Treat Back Pain

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
If you're dealing with back pain — whether you spend hours sitting every day or are still nursing that weird high school injury — you know it can be a tricky thing to treat. But, new research may have found a surprisingly effective (and drug-free) way to ease the pain.

The idea came from a study recently published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders in which participants wore a set of wireless, motion-sensing patches on their backs for 10 weeks. They all had to wear them for four to 10 hours at a time, six to eight times total. Everyone's lower back pain was assessed before and after the 10 weeks, and they all received consultations along the way.

But, about half of the participants (58) received biofeedback from their sensors about the way they were moving their bodies. A clinician would look at the sensors' data to see what the participants' problems were (such as a decrease in activation in certain muscles when lifting heavy objects) and program little "rules" for them to follow in order to correct the issues. Then, if participants broke those rules, they'd hear an alert telling them to get back in line. Acting as controls, the other 54 participants wore the sensors but didn't get the biofeedback.

After the 10 weeks were over, results showed that participants who'd gotten the biofeedback training had "moderate to large" improvements compared to those who'd only gotten the counseling. Those participants had lower scores on both pain intensity and activity limitation. And, after 12 months, those in the feedback group were three times more likely to have made significant improvements in managing their back pain.

Those are some pretty astounding results, especially because the training stuck with participants for so long. Of course, this treatment is still in its early stages, but it seems like the researchers have found the key with biofeedback training. Hopefully a larger trial is in our near future.

The idea is that when we're injured, we adapt our movement and muscle activation patterns to lessen the pain. But, we end up either just prolonging that pain or creating pain elsewhere by throwing our bodies off balance. Still, these results suggest it's actually pretty easy to re-train ourselves when we get feedback in the moment. Which is excellent news, because sometimes the causes of our back pain are a little more hidden than the pain itself.
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