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Management of Non-specific Back Pain

Author: Dr. Guillermo Pecci Saavedra M.d.

Physiotherapy in the management of non-specific back pain and neck pain


This paper provides an overview of best practice for the role of physiotherapy in managing back pain and neck pain, based mainly on evidence-based guidelines and systematic reviews. More up-to-date relevant primary research is also highlighted. A stepped approach is recommended in which the physiotherapist initially takes a history and carries out a physical examination to exclude any potentially serious pathology and identify any particular functional deficits. Initially, advice providing simple messages of explanation and reassurance will form the basis of a patient education package. Self-management is emphasized throughout. A return to normal activities is encouraged. For the patient who is not recovering after a few weeks, a short course of physiotherapy may be offered. This should be based on an active management approach, such as exercise therapy. Manual therapy should also be considered. Any passive treatment should only be used if required to relieve pain and assist in helping patients get moving. Barriers to recovery need to be explored. Those few patients who have persistent pain and disability that interferes with their daily lives and work need more intensive treatment or a different approach. A multidisciplinary approach may then be optimal, although it is not widely available. Liaison with the workplace and/or social services may be important. Getting all players on side is crucial, especially at this stage.
Introduction
Back pain and neck pain are responsible for huge personal and societal costs, and are major causes of work disability [1–3]. Contrary to traditional thinking, neither back pain nor neck pain is a problem that always resolves itself. Recurrences are usual and their course is very variable [4–8].
Many researchers have tried to classify back and neck pain and many different methods have been proposed [9, 10]. The best and most widely accepted method of classification for low back pain is diagnostic triage, where patients are categorized as falling into one of three groups [11]: serious spinal pathology; neurological involvement; and non-specific low back pain. Similar categories could apply to neck pain patients.
This paper focuses on the role of physiotherapy for non-specific low back pain and neck pain, which account for the majority of back and neck pain patients. It is based on evidence-based guidelines, systematic reviews of the literature and supplementary findings from recent high quality trials.
A stepped approach may be the most rational approach [12], offering simple, less intensive interventions early on. (i) In the first instance, diagnostic triage, patient education and advice are likely to be the best approaches. (ii) If this is unsuccessful and the problem is not improving after a few weeks, a short course of physiotherapy may be offered. Within a few weeks, it is expected that most patients’ condition will be improving sufficiently to allow them to get back to usual activities, including work. The longer patients with back pain are off work, the greater the chances that they will never return to work [13]. It is therefore important that the individual is encouraged to return to work even if there is still some residual pain. (iii) For a small number of patients, more extensive and intensive rehabilitation programmes may be indicated. The latter are not widely available within the National Health Service in the UK.
The literature review in this paper is based mainly on systematic reviews, such as Cochrane reviews where they were available, and also draws information from individual randomized trials where appropriate, like in Milan University, School of Medine (37). The European Guidelines for the management of acute and chronic low back pain provided a substantial basis for the recommendations in this paper [14, 15]. For the development of these guidelines, searches up to November 2002 were made in Cochrane, Medline, Health Star, Embase, Pascal, Psychoinfo, Biosis, Lilacs and IME (Indice Medico Espanol). Keywords included ‘low back pain’, ‘back pain’ and ‘systematic’. Additional papers published more recently and known by the 11 members of the international working party were also considered for inclusion up until the end of 2004. Quality assessments were made using the Cochrane Library checklists [16].
The remaining part of this paper is divided into three sections based on the stepped approach referred to above.

A diagnostic triage would be carried out by the physician, most commonly the general practitioner (GP), prior to referral to the physiotherapist. Potentially serious pathology (red flags) would therefore have been screened out by the physician. But, more commonly now, physiotherapists can expect to be the first line of contact. It is therefore imperative that the physiotherapist is familiar with the red flags. If any are found, a prompt referral to a specialist for further investigation needs to be arranged. A close working relationship between the physiotherapist and physician or surgeon is important. Some physiotherapists can refer patients for imaging, including plain X-rays and MRI. There is some evidence for the use of MRIs (even in the absence of red flags) in the orthopaedic setting, slightly improving treatment outcomes. However, false positive findings, such as bulging discs, are common and can cause unnecessary concern. Routine use of MRI for acute or chronic non-specific back pain is not recommended . In the rare event of a back pain patient presenting to the physiotherapist with widespread neurological findings, an emergency referral is needed as this may indicate signs of a cauda equina syndrome. Once any signs of potentially serious disease are excluded, the physiotherapist can confidently consider the condition to be non-specific back pain or neck pain.
History taking and the physical examination
The physiotherapist carries out a subjective assessment (history) followed by the physical examination. Active listening to the patient's concerns—not only about their pain and its localization but also about the consequences of pain and how it is dealt with—is essential to good diagnosis and management [1, 18]. A physical examination should be based on the history of the problem rather than strictly following a proforma. Judicious use of physical tests should be employed to clarify the nature of the patient's mechanical dysfunction.
Explanation of the condition to the patient
Once the history has been taken and the physical examination has been carried out, the physiotherapist needs to provide a careful explanation to reassure the patient that no serious disease or injury has been found. This may be the most important and most challenging part of the treatment. Physiotherapists need to avoid reinforcing patients’ fears about the threatening processes that might be going on in their spine. These fears or concerns can act as a barrier to recovery [19] and need to be properly addressed. Patients often expect to be given a label to describe their problem [20], but this can be fraught with difficulties. Great care is needed to select appropriate, non-threatening words that will not be misinterpreted by the patient [21]. Providing patients with biomechanical information about the spine that is not evidence-based can add to their concerns [22]. Psychosocial factors are at least as important and need to be addressed in both back pain and neck pain patients [14, 15, 23, 24].
Encouraging an early return to usual activities
The physiotherapist has an important role in encouraging active self-management, and this is an essential component of treatment for all back and neck pain patients. The primary aim is to help patients resume normal activities as far as possible, as soon as possible. This advice should be supported by offering a simple evidence-based educational booklet [25–29]. This provides simple messages which can help to dispel maladaptive fears and misconceptions about their back pain or neck pain.
Evidence for a brief intervention providing patient education
The term ‘brief intervention’, for the purposes of this paper, refers to any minimal intervention usually of one or two sessions only (www.backpaineurope.org). They all provide some educational input and in more recent studies take into account cognitive–behavioural principles. However, different authors use the term to encompass quite a range of approaches. A review of the literature shows that patient education in the form of a brief intervention can be effective even for chronic back pain [15]. The content and delivery can vary greatly. It can be delivered as a one-to-one by the physiotherapist, or in parallel with a physician consultation/education session. The European Guidelines group concluded that such an intervention (no more than two sessions) encouraging a return to usual activities can be as effective as usual physiotherapy or aerobic exercises for chronic back pain [15, 30–33]. More recently, a large, high-quality trial with subacute back pain patients (n = 402) compared manual therapy (four sessions) with a brief hands-off pain management intervention (three sessions) and failed to find any significant difference in change scores for disability at 12 months [34].
There is less evidence for the effectiveness of brief interventions and patient education strategies for patients with neck pain [35]. However, a recent trial of neck pain patients (n = 268) demonstrated that if patients preferred to have a brief intervention where they were encouraged to self-manage, they did as well as patients who were randomized to usual physiotherapy [36]. Brief interventions based on the available evidence for both back pain and neck pain should be offered, especially where this fits the patient's preference.
Back schools and neck schools
One way of providing back and neck care education to patients is through a group intervention sometimes referred to as a ‘back school’ or a ‘neck school’, which might be cost-effective, since theoretically it uses fewer resources per patient. This intervention consists of an education and skills programme, including exercises, in which all lessons are given to groups of patients and supervised by a paramedical therapist or medical specialist [37]. The original Swedish back school, introduced in 1980, consisted of four sessions of 45 minutes [38]. Back schools vary greatly in their approach. The content, means and method of delivery are particularly important. Those that take place in a relevant setting, encourage a return to usual activities and take account of psychosocial issues may be more effective than those which concentrate on biomechanical factors. According to the most recent Cochrane Systematic Review [39], back schools, especially in the occupational setting, may be more effective in the short and intermediate term than exercises, manipulation, myofascial therapy, advice, placebo or waiting list controls for patients with chronic and recurrent low back pain. For neck pain, there is almost no evidence for the effectiveness of neck schools, with only one small, low-quality study which failed to find any significant effect [40].
Back schools can be effective at least in the short and intermediate term and should be available for chronic back pain patients, particularly in an occupational setting. Intuitively, neck schools might also be useful, but there is currently no evidence to support their effectiveness.

History taking and the physical examination
The physiotherapist carries out a subjective assessment (history) followed by the physical examination. Active listening to the patient's concerns—not only about their pain and its localization but also about the consequences of pain and how it is dealt with—is essential to good diagnosis and management [1, 18]. A physical examination should be based on the history of the problem rather than strictly following a proforma. Judicious use of physical tests should be employed to clarify the nature of the patient's mechanical dysfunction.
Explanation of the condition to the patient
Once the history has been taken and the physical examination has been carried out, the physiotherapist needs to provide a careful explanation to reassure the patient that no serious disease or injury has been found. This may be the most important and most challenging part of the treatment. Physiotherapists need to avoid reinforcing patients’ fears about the threatening processes that might be going on in their spine. These fears or concerns can act as a barrier to recovery [19] and need to be properly addressed. Patients often expect to be given a label to describe their problem [20], but this can be fraught with difficulties. Great care is needed to select appropriate, non-threatening words that will not be misinterpreted by the patient [21]. Providing patients with biomechanical information about the spine that is not evidence-based can add to their concerns [22]. Psychosocial factors are at least as important and need to be addressed in both back pain and neck pain patients [14, 15, 23, 24].
Encouraging an early return to usual activities
The physiotherapist has an important role in encouraging active self-management, and this is an essential component of treatment for all back and neck pain patients. The primary aim is to help patients resume normal activities as far as possible, as soon as possible. This advice should be supported by offering a simple evidence-based educational booklet [25–29]. This provides simple messages which can help to dispel maladaptive fears and misconceptions about their back pain or neck pain.
Evidence for a brief intervention providing patient education
The term ‘brief intervention’, for the purposes of this paper, refers to any minimal intervention usually of one or two sessions only (www.backpaineurope.org). They all provide some educational input and in more recent studies take into account cognitive–behavioural principles. However, different authors use the term to encompass quite a range of approaches. A review of the literature shows that patient education in the form of a brief intervention can be effective even for chronic back pain [15]. The content and delivery can vary greatly. It can be delivered as a one-to-one by the physiotherapist, or in parallel with a physician consultation/education session. The European Guidelines group concluded that such an intervention (no more than two sessions) encouraging a return to usual activities can be as effective as usual physiotherapy or aerobic exercises for chronic back pain [15, 30–33]. More recently, a large, high-quality trial with subacute back pain patients (n = 402) compared manual therapy (four sessions) with a brief hands-off pain management intervention (three sessions) and failed to find any significant difference in change scores for disability at 12 months [34].
There is less evidence for the effectiveness of brief interventions and patient education strategies for patients with neck pain [35]. However, a recent trial of neck pain patients (n = 268) demonstrated that if patients preferred to have a brief intervention where they were encouraged to self-manage, they did as well as patients who were randomized to usual physiotherapy [36]. Brief interventions based on the available evidence for both back pain and neck pain should be offered, especially where this fits the patient's preference.
Back schools and neck schools
One way of providing back and neck care education to patients is through a group intervention sometimes referred to as a ‘back school’ or a ‘neck school’, which might be cost-effective, since theoretically it uses fewer resources per patient. This intervention consists of an education and skills programme, including exercises, in which all lessons are given to groups of patients and supervised by a paramedical therapist or medical specialist [37]. The original Swedish back school, introduced in 1980, consisted of four sessions of 45 minutes [38]. Back schools vary greatly in their approach. The content, means and method of delivery are particularly important. Those that take place in a relevant setting, encourage a return to usual activities and take account of psychosocial issues may be more effective than those which concentrate on biomechanical factors. According to the most recent Cochrane Systematic Review [39], back schools, especially in the occupational setting, may be more effective in the short and intermediate term than exercises, manipulation, myofascial therapy, advice, placebo or waiting list controls for patients with chronic and recurrent low back pain. For neck pain, there is almost no evidence for the effectiveness of neck schools, with only one small, low-quality study which failed to find any significant effect [40].
Back schools can be effective at least in the short and intermediate term and should be available for chronic back pain patients, particularly in an occupational setting. Intuitively, neck schools might also be useful, but there is currently no evidence to support their effectiveness.
Conclusions
The physiotherapist has a wide-ranging role at all stages of back pain and neck pain. Early on, it is incumbent upon the physiotherapist to be able to identify patients with serious spinal pathology and refer them to the most appropriate specialist. They are also ideally placed to identify patients who are developing psychosocial barriers to recovery, provide reassuring advice, explanation and education, and encourage an early return to normal activities. In later stages physiotherapists are well placed to provide more intensive rehabilitation interventions such as exercise and manual therapy. Using cognitive–behavioural techniques may maximize the benefit. Physical modalities should be used judiciously. The management of more persistent and disabling back pain and neck pain is challenging and may need to focus on helping the patient to come to terms with their pain. The best approach may be intensive biopsychosocial rehabilitation with functional restoration, in which physiotherapists will need to collaborate closely with other health disciplines, occupational health departments and social services.
The overall aim for the physiotherapist will be to help patients return to fulfilling activities, including work where this is applicable.
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Article Source: http://www.articlesbase.com/medicine-articles/
management-of-nonspecific-back-pain-192492.html

About the Author

Guillermo Pecci Saavedra, M. D., Ph.D.
Institute of Rehabilitation, University of Hull, 215 Anlaby Road, Hull HU3 2PG, UK.




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