Ineffective Ways to Prevent Back Pain

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Back pain is common—about 80 percent of all people will experience it at some point in their lives. And treating it, at least collectively, can come at a high price. Going to see one or more health practitioners for your spine often results in multiple treatments typically associated with high costs. Plus, back pain can lead to disability or lost work time, and may put a crimp in your social life.  

It makes sense, then, that preventing back pain where and when you can is the best way to address it. Recommended ways to do that abound: Ask 10 people how to nip spine pain in the bud, and you’ll likely learn about 10 different methods.

To help you separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, let's focus on what not to do when attempting to prevent back pain. As you read through, keep in mind that there are fewer studies on neck and back pain prevention than there are on treatment, so we’ll have to extrapolate information on prevention from the data on treatment that’s out there.

1. Back Belts

Although many an employee uses a back belt, and many physical therapists recommend them heartily for keeping the trunk in position or serving as a reminder to maintain good form, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) wants you to be aware that scientific evidence does not support using a back belt for preventing back pain.

To arrive at their determination, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is a part of the CDC, reviewed the few existing studies on the topic. These studies looked at the association between the use of back belts in the workplace and workplace injuries. They also looked at how back belt use affects forces on the spine during lifting.

NIOSH says that because most of the research done so far has been about the causes of back injury rather than the rates of injury in the workplace, the cause data very much informs their decision not to recommend back belts for preventing injury.

Along with reducing workplace injury, a couple of the more common reasons people use back belts (also known as “abdominal belts” or “back supports”) include:

  • Reducing the load on the spine during exertion. Although many of the studies NIOSH reviewed were indeed about loading, the evidence that loading was reduced by wearing a back belt just wasn’t there. The CDC says that, in fact, there’s little evidence to suggest it’s even possible that a device such as a back belt is capable of reducing the load.
  • Restricting forward bending motion (which is a known risk factor for disc and other injuries). While we’re talking about loading, let’s talk about how it increases when you bend forward. The CDC says that if the action of a back belt was to restrict forward motion, it would likely help reduce the risk of a disc injury. As it turns out, though, back belts are much better at restricting side to side and twisting motions than a forward motion. 

2. Shoe Insoles and/or Orthotics

Some people believe that foot orthotics or insoles reduce the risk of developing non-specific low back pain (as well as can serve as an effective treatment). For this and other reasons, they are a pretty popular solution. But sufficient evidence for their use hasn’t been established, according to a 2014 systematic review published in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. Just the same, they continue to be big business.

3. Magnets

Magnets are touted as healing agents by many holistic practitioners who claim they can be effective for pain, stress, arthritis and more. As such, they comprise a multi-billion dollar health industry. But is magnet therapy truly effective for preventing (or relieving) back pain?

A 2005 systematic review published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine suggested that magnets may play a role in pain relief. That said,  another systematic review and meta-analysis done two years later and published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal could not find evidence to support the use of static magnets for pain, and therefore didn’t recommend them.

Magnets are a CAM therapy (complementary and alternative medicine treatment). The AHRQ says that most of the time, CAM treatments work immediately and/or for a short while after the treatment is given, but that they tend to fade with time.

4. Stopping Movement Based on Fear

One very ineffective way to prevent back pain is to stop moving altogether, or almost altogether. This is generally done out of fear of pain and is aptly named fear avoidance technique. While experts previously believed that bed rest is good medicine for a bad back, more recently the advice has switched to modifying the activity to the point where you’re out of pain but you don't quit activity completely. Movement and exercise can be very strengthening to a spine and is one of the best ways to treat and prevent neck and back pain.

When You Do Get Back Pain

If you do get back pain, the good news is that you likely have a 60 percent chance of recovering within just a few weeks, and you may not even have to do anything to get to there. But according to a study published in the June 2014 issue of the British Medical Journal, that leaves you with about a 40 percent chance of experiencing a slow, laborious recovery as well as an increased risk for long-term symptoms. The study also says that for people with chronic back pain, research has consistently shown that treatments are seldom useful for returning you to a pain-free and/or productive status.

So if you don’t want to face a downward spiral with longer and longer periods of pain, disability, and interference of your personal and social life, finding a way to prevent back pain is paramount. And the best way is by moving your body. Yes, exercise. There’s no substitute for working your core, back, and hip muscles if preventing (and/or treating back pain is your goal.)

Other tips include:

  • Losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight or lose weight
  • Go for good posture, and stand or sit up straight often. When you have to lift things from the floor, use good body mechanics (with or without a back belt) by bending your hips, knees, and ankles rather than rounding over at the spine. And, of course, avoid the heavy lifting when you can.
  • Stretch your hip muscles. You never know! Your back pain may be created by limited hip motion!
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Article Sources

  • Chuter V., Spink M., Searle A., Ho A. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. April 2014. Accessed: June 2016. The effectiveness of shoe insoles for the prevention and treatment of low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.
  • Eccles N. A critical review of randomized controlled trials of static magnets for pain relief.J Altern Complement Med. June 2005. Accessed: June 2016.
  • Furlan A, Yazdi F, Tsertsvadze A, Gross A, Van Tulder, M, Santaguida L, Cherkin D, Gagnier J, Ammendolia C, Ansari M, Ostermann T, Dryden T, Doucette S, Skidmore B, Daniel R, Tsouros S, Weeks L, Galipeau J. Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Back Pain II. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 194. (Prepared by the University of Ottawa Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-2007-10059-I (EPCIII). AHRQ Publication No. 10(11)­E007. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. October 2010.
  • Steffens D., Maher C., Pereira L., Stevens M., Oliveira V., Chapple M., Teixeira-Salmela L., Hancock M. Prevention of Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. Feb 2016. Accessed June 2016.
  • Traeger, A., Moseley, G., Hübscher, M., Lee, H., Skinner, I., Nicholas, M., Henschke, N., Refshauge, K., Blyth, F., Main, C., Hush, J., Pearce,G., McAuley, J. Pain education to prevent chronic low back pain: a study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. BMJ Open. June 2014. Accessed: June 2016.