We Must Tackle The Message Of Fear Around Back Pain

The latest ‘cure’ for back pain hit the front pages last week, offering an end to the condition in just one, 10-minute session.

Scientists from Rome revealed findings of their new radiofrequency treatment that claimed to eliminate back pain in the vast majority of people.

This was one small study, however, with no control group of people who did not receive the treatment.

So we cannot say whether the people were ‘cured’ by the treatment – or simply got better.

Indeed, it is highly likely that the latter is true because that’s what happens in most episodes of back pain.

Unfortunately, that narrative does not get much of an airing in the media, the commercial world or indeed, in healthcare and it’s high time that changed.

Too often when we talk about the issue, we focus on ‘the fix’ – on what can be done to a person to make them better – and beneath that is a simple emotion: fear.

We’ve been conditioned to believe our back is fragile and that pain must mean it is damaged.

We’ve been told that bending and lifting is bad for us, that a scan will show what is wrong and that surgery is needed to ‘fix’ us.

We’ve been told our spines are crumbling, our discs have slipped, that we will end up in wheelchairs because our cores are weak and our pelvises are unstable.

A massive industry has arisen, ready and willing to sell us the latest gadget, mattress, shoe, support – so much of it snake oil, playing on people’s fears and desperation for ‘the cure’.

There are very real, very human consequences to all of this that physiotherapists see each day.

We see people who no longer socialise, play sport, play with their kids; no longer do all the things they used to love because they fear what will happen to their back.

These are people who change their jobs, retire early; lose the sense of self-worth and independence that comes from going out and doing a day’s work.

They have closed down their lives based on fallacies and are trapped in a narrower world with no prospect of escape.

That is a dreadful, entirely avoidable tragedy.

How have we reached this point? Who has made us think that way?

The media, sure – it holds some blame.

Myths abound in coverage of back pain and feed the narrative of the spine being something we need to protect.

And the appeal to fear is a successful tactic used across the commercial world so the healthcare industry is no different.

But those stories and products often quote health professionals who should know better and physios are forever battling nonsense their patients have been told elsewhere.

So we need to get our own house in order and we need to do it fast because we – and I mean as a society – desperately need to change the narrative on back pain.

The spine is a strong, stable structure that responds and adapts well to the strains and stresses of everyday life.

Don’t fear bending and lifting – lift what you can in a way that feels comfortable.

Don’t fear exercise and activity – keep moving and find something you enjoy doing so that you are likely to keep it up.

Don’t go down the route of medication, scans and surgery unless all other avenues have been exhausted and it’s absolutely your only option.

Sleep. Relax. Take time to look after yourself.

If it doesn’t go away, speak to a physiotherapist but above all, try not to worry.

Most of us get back pain at some point and it’s uncomfortable and upsetting but your chances of getting better are extremely high.

The appeal to fear rules – and ruins – too many lives.

Let’s change how we speak about back pain to give people back those lives.