Fads and facts in the relief of back pain

01st Jan 2019

Back pain is an extremely common complaint across all sectors of society so it’s no surprise that a lot of quick fixes pop up. Unfortunately most of these fads have not been properly tested or investigated. They tend to rely on word of mouth and the internet to gain popularity.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen a number of fad remedies become extremely popular. Someone comes along, suggests a treatment and everyone hops on the bandwagon. Eventually, these same people realise it doesn’t work and they slowly drift away from supporting the treatment.

Thankfully the treatment of back conditions has come a long way since the

’70s. Back then, there was an enzyme that was injected into the discs of the spine. The enzyme would damage the discs and cause severe pain but this was followed by an enormous healing reaction. Afterwards, the disc would be immobile but the pain would improve. However, a certain percentage of people were left with chronic scarring of the nerves and back pain much worse than with what they were trying to cure.

Fads come and go

Ten years later, fusing the spine was very commonplace until it was realised that it just didn’t work. That was followed by a technique where a small cushion was implanted in the interspinous space—and that didn’t work either.

A less invasive trend was exercise balls repurposed as a chair at a desk. People are less keen on them now but they didn’t cause any serious damage or discomfort. The exercise ball forced you to sit up straight and engaged your core. However, we now realise that sitting up straight for extended periods is not such a good thing as it puts a lot of pressure on the discs in the spine. Unfortunately, this means your mother was wrong when she kept telling you to sit up straight—but she was right about everything else!

A current fad is the use of a standing desk chair, particularly at work. There are many different styles and brands on the market but they all keep you in a standing position while working at a raised desk.

These chairs are based on the fact that the pressure on the disc is highest when you’re sitting. Likewise, the pressure is greatly reduced when you’re standing. The theory is that using a standing chair reduces the risk of worsening a back injury or causing a back injury in the first place. It may work but I haven’t seen any strong evidence supporting that conclusion.

Get your back pain assessed by a professional

The causes of back pain are varied and there are various techniques, methods and appliances that can help. While most fads can offer some degree of relief, it’s important to have your back pain assessed by a professional who specialises in spine surgery. If the cause is something that requires minimal or extensive surgery, then a new type of seat is not the answer. In some cases it could lead to further pain and aggravate the existing condition.

If you have back pain, speak to your GP or specialist, have your back examined and get a diagnosis of the root cause of the pain. Take the advice of the doctor in regard to treatment and if you are interested in trying one of these fad treatments, discuss it with them first.

About Dr Richard Parkinson

Dr Richard Parkinson is a Fellowship trained neurointerventional neurosurgeon and minimally invasive spinal surgeon based in Sydney. He has been performing minimally invasive and complex spinal surgery for 18+ years and has built his reputation on his conservative approach to surgery. He operates at Sydney’s leading private hospitals and has performed surgery on a very significant volume of patients requiring both straight-forward and complex spine surgery. Read his full biography here.