Thousands and thousands of Americans complain about back pain every single year. And these aches and pains seem to only get worse as we get older.
As such, many turn to pain reliever such as Advil and Tylenol for temporary relief. Still, some reach for the stronger stuff when these two just won’t cut it. This is often the case with chronic lower back pain (existing for 12+ weeks). Despite all this, it seems that thus far these have only been temporary solutions.
However, there’s a new study that’s been done by the University of South Australia’s School of Health Sciences in Adelaide. And, according to the results of the study, lower back pain may not be real pain at all – it all may just be in your head.
To test their hypotheses, the researchers brought 15 people together, who all reported symptoms of chronic lower back pain. In addition, they brought in a group of 15 others who were healthy, did not report chronic back pain, and who were the same ages as the participants.
Over the course of three experiments, the researchers made observations of how stiff the muscles in the lower back actually were. They then compared this information with the symptoms the text subjects reported to be feeling. According to Medical News Today, this was done in a variety of ways:
The team conducted three experiments. In the first one, they used an “established, customized device, validated in humans” that applies pressure to the spine and can objectively measure the resulting stiffness.
The researchers compared these measurements with what the participants reported to feel, using a scale from “not stiff at all” to “most stiff imaginable.”
In the second experiment, the participants were told that they would receive an applied force and were then asked to estimate as accurately as they could the magnitude of the force they received.
Finally, the third experiment aimed to examine whether or not adding sounds to the perception of pressure would change how the stiffness is perceived.
Surprisingly, according to the results, the subjects’ reporting of back pain may not have been in reality due to pain at all, but due to a protective response of their lower back. As Dr. Tasha Stanton states:
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 [it] felt, the more they overestimated force. This suggests that feelings of stiffness are a protective response, likely to avoid movement.”
Dr. Tasha Stanton
“In theory,” Dr. Stanton adds, “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.”
Dr. Stanton also explains the results of the third experiment, saying, “[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.”
Dr. Stanton is hopeful that she and other medical professionals can begin focusing on the patient’s senses to help reduce chronic lower back pain rather than prescribing pain relievers. She says this may open the door to a wide variety of new and exiting treatment possibilities.