Study finds back pain a trick of the mind

man reaching for back
A bad back can strike at any moment and stick around for days.

Got a stiff back? Think again.

Millions of Australians are living with back stiffness every day, but a new study has found that tight, achy feeling could be a trick of the mind brought on to protect our bodies from further injury.

A paper published in Nature journal Scientific Reports by Dr Tasha Stanton, Senior Research Fellow in UniSA’s School of Health Sciences, says that back stiffness has no relation to our joints and that it can be eased or made worse by different sounds.

Dr Stanton assessed 15 patients with chronic lower-back pain who reported feelings of back stiffness and applied pressure to the spine, paired with different sounds.

She also assessed another control group of 15 individuals with no lower-back pain.

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Her results are considered a breakthrough in back pain treatment.

“We know that millions of people around the world have chronic lower back conditions but the feeling of stiffness may not actually reflect how bad their back is,” Dr Stanton said.

“In theory, people who feel back stiffness should have a stiffer spine than those who do not. We found this was not the case in reality. Instead, we found that that the amount they protected their back was a better predictor of how stiff their back felt.

“People with chronic back pain and stiffness overestimated how much force was being applied to their backs – they were more protective of their back. How much they overestimated this force related to how stiff their backs felt – the stiffer the back felt, the more they overestimated force. This suggests that feelings of stiffness are a protective response, likely to avoid movement.

“Secondly, we found that these feelings could be modulated using different sounds. The feeling of stiffness was worse with creaky door sounds and less with gentle whooshing sounds. This raises the possibility that we can clinically target stiffness without focusing on the joint itself but using other senses,” she said.

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Approximately 10 per cent of the global population suffers from lower-back pain, with millions unable to find relief.

There is hope that Dr Stanton’s research will provide new treatment avenues to explore to find a solution for those living in pain.

“The brain uses information from numerous different sources including sound, touch, and vision, to create feelings such as stiffness,” Dr Stanton said.

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“If we can manipulate those sources of information, we then potentially have the ability to manipulate feelings of stiffness. This opens the door for new treatment possibilities which is incredibly exciting”.

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Do you have back stiffness and pain? How do you treat it?