Waiting For Back Pain to Go Away? Do This Instead

New research shows that the traditional wait-and-see approach may not be effective.

Back Pain
Sara Shupe, MSPT, Dip. MDT, is a physical therapy specialist at the Institute for Athletic Medicine. She recently shared her research related to low back pain at the North American Spine Society summer meeting in San Diego.

Have you ever been to the doctor for back pain and been told to simply wait it out? Well, there’s a reason for that. The general medical assumption has traditionally been that most low back pain dissipates naturally within three or four weeks as part of an ebb-and-flow cycle.

While this may be true in a few cases, the mounting costs of low back pain–which is now the leading cause of disability in the U.S.–have led researchers to search for more effective methods of care.

For most patients, early intervention with physical therapy can help reduce the need for expensive MRIs and injections down the road. But how can we be sure a patient will benefit from early intervention? 

That’s where our research comes in.

Stress and worry may make pain worse

My colleagues at the Institute for Athletic Medicine and I were interested in finding a way to predict how well patients will respond to certain types of treatments. How? By examining not only their physical symptoms, but their mental and emotional states as well.

Using something called a StartBack Tool, we began asking questions to identify how much a patient worries, how hopeless they feel and how much their pain has affected their quality of life, in addition to their level of pain.

Recent data has shown that all patients benefit from early intervention of physical therapy. This is especially important for patients who have a high degree of worry about their condition, are scared to move or have a poor coping strategy, as these patients tend to have worse physical outcomes over time.

Why do your physical and emotional states affect your ability to cope with and recover from back pain? We don’t have an exact answer, though some theorize that if you're afraid to move your body won’t be able to heal properly. Others believe your muscles and bones can be negatively affected by stress, just like other parts of the body.  

Getting these patients on a physical therapy treatment plan immediately rather than waiting it out helps them develop coping mechanisms, take proactive measures to reduce their pain, and feel empowered on their path to recovery. 

What have we learned?

So far, we’ve seen that a patient’s physical and mental state can be huge indicators of their responsiveness to early intervention.

By identifying patients who would be good candidates for early intervention based on physical and mental factors, we’ve managed to:

  • Lower the risk of low back pain developing into a long-term disability
  • Improved patients’ function long term
  • Reduced the likelihood for patient-reported additional doctor visits, MRIs, injections, etc.
Less pain for less cost, anyone?

More information

If you're suffering from back pain, call the Institute for Athletic Medicine at 612-672-7100 or make an appointment online

Related Articles