The media have (rightly) paid much attention to the three Lancet-articles on low back pain (LBP) which were published this week. LBP is such a common condition that its prevalence alone renders it an important subject for us all. One of the three papers covers the treatment and prevention of LBP. Specifically, it lists various therapies according to their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. The authors of the article base their judgements mainly on published guidelines from Denmark, UK and the US; as these guidelines differ, they attempt a synthesis of the three.
Several alternative therapist organisations and individuals have consequently jumped on the LBP bandwagon and seem to feel encouraged by the attention given to the Lancet-papers to promote their treatments. Others have claimed that my often critical verdicts of alternative therapies for LBP are out of line with this evidence and asked ‘who should we believe the international team of experts writing in one of the best medical journals, or Edzard Ernst writing on his blog?’ They are trying to create a division where none exists,
The thing is that I am broadly in agreement with the evidence presented in Lancet-paper! But I also know that things are a bit more complex.
Below, I have copied the non-pharmacological, non-operative treatments listed in the Lancet-paper together with the authors’ verdicts regarding their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. I find no glaring contradictions with what I regard as the best current evidence and with my posts on the subject. But I feel compelled to point out that the Lancet-paper merely lists the effectiveness of several therapeutic options, and that the value of a treatment is not only determined by its effectiveness. Crucial further elements are a therapy’s cost and its risks, the latter of which also determines the most important criterion: the risk/benefit balance. In my version of the Lancet table, I have therefore added these three variables for non-pharmacological and non-surgical options:
|EFFECTIVENESS ACUTE LBP||EFFECTIVENESS PERSISTENT LBP||RISKS||COSTS||RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE|
|Advice to stay active||+, routine||+, routine||None||Low||Positive|
|Education||+, routine||+, routine||None||Low||Positive|
|Superficial heat||+/-||Ie||Very minor||Low to medium||Positive (aLBP)|
|Exercise||Limited||+/-, routine||Very minor||Low||Positive (pLBP)|
|CBT||Limited||+/-, routine||None||Low to medium||Positive (pLBP)|
|Rehab||Ie||+/-||Minor||Medium to high||Questionable|
Routine = consider for routine use
+/- = second line or adjunctive treatment
Ie = insufficient evidence
Limited = limited use in selected patients
vfbmae = very frequent, minor adverse effects
sae = serious adverse effects, including deaths, are on record
aLBP = acute low back pain
The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.
I imagine that chiropractors, osteopaths and acupuncturists will strongly disagree with my interpretation of the evidence (they might even feel that their cash-flow is endangered) – and I am looking forward to the discussions around their objections.