back pain

Tai Chi, as we know it in the West, is said to promote the smooth flow of “energy” throughout the body by performing postures, slow meditative movements and controlled breathing. Tai Chi is also supposed to help increasing flexibility, suppleness, balance and coordination. According to enthusiasts, the smooth, gentle movements of Tai Chi aid relaxation and help to keep the mind calm and focused.

Tai Chi has become popular in Western countries and is being considered for a surprisingly wide range of conditions. The patient/consumer is taught to perform postures, slow meditative movements and controlled breathing. The concepts underlying Tai Chi are strange, but that does not necessarily mean that the treatment is not effective for certain illnesses or symptoms.

There has been a surprising amount of research in this area, and some studies have generated encouraging results. A recent study which is unfortunately not available electronically ( Wu, WF; Muheremu, A; Chen, CH; Liu, WG; Sun, L. Effectiveness of Tai Chi Practice for Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain on Retired Athletes: A Randomized Controlled Study. JOURNAL OF MUSCULOSKELETAL PAIN 2013, 21:1, p.37-45) tested the effectiveness of Tai Chi for chronic back pain. Specifically, the researchers wanted to determine whether regular Tai Chi practice is superior to other means of sports rehabilitation in relieving non-specific chronic low back pain [LBP] in a younger population. They randomized 320 former athletes suffering from chronic LBP into a treatment [tai chi practice] and several control groups [regular sessions with swimming, backward walking or jogging, or no such interventions]. At the beginning, middle, and end of a six-month intervention, patients from all groups completed questionnaires assessing the intensity of LBP; in addition, a physical examination was conducted.

After 3 and 6 months, no statistically significant difference in the intensity of LBP was demonstrated between the Tai Chi and swimming. However, significant differences were demonstrated between the Tai Chi and backward walking, jogging, and no exercise groups.

The authors’ concluded that “Tai chi has better efficacy than certain other sports on the treatment of non-specific chronic LBP.”

This is only the second RCT of Tai chi for back pain. The first such study consisted of 160 volunteers between ages 18 and 70 years with persistent nonspecific low back pain. The experimental group (n = 80) had 18 Tai Chi sessions over a 10-week period. The waitlist control group continued with their usual health care. Bothersomeness of symptoms was the primary outcome, and secondary outcomes included pain intensity and pain-related disability. Tai Chi reduced bothersomeness of back symptoms by 1.7 points on a 0-10 scale, reduced pain intensity by 1.3 points on a 0-10 scale, and improved self-report disability by 2.6 points on the 0-24 Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire scale. The authors of this RCT concluded that a 10-week Tai Chi program improved pain and disability outcomes and can be considered a safe and effective intervention for those experiencing long-term low back pain symptoms.

My own team have conducted their fair share of Tai Chi research. Specifically,we have published several systematic reviews of Tai Chi as an adjunctive or supportive treatment of various conditions, and the conclusions (in italics) have been mixed.

DIABETES: The existing evidence does not suggest that tai chi is an effective therapy for type 2 diabetes.

HYPERTENSION: The evidence for tai chi in reducing blood pressure in the elderly individuals is limited.

BREAST CANCER: the existing trial evidence does not show convincingly that tai chi is effective for supportive breast cancer care.

IMPROVEMENT OF AEROBIC EXCERCISE CAPACITY: the existing evidence does not suggest that regular tai chi is an effective way of increasing aerobic capacity.

PARKINSON’S DISEASE: the evidence is insufficient to suggest tai chi is an effective intervention for Parkinson’s Disease.

OSTEOPOROSIS: The evidence for tai chi in the prevention or treatment of osteoporosis is not convincing.

OSTEOARTHRITIS: there is some encouraging evidence suggesting that tai chi may be effective for pain control in patients with knee OA.

RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS: Collectively this evidence is not convincing enough to suggest that tai chi is an effective treatment for RA.

Finally, an overview over all systematic reviews of Tai Chi suggested that the only area where the evidence is convincing is the prevention of falls in the elderly.

I think, this indicates that we should not pin our hopes too high as to the therapeutic value of Tai Chi. In particular, for back pain, the evidence might be optimistically judged as encouraging, but it is by no means convincing; the effect size seems to be small and two studies are not enough to issue general recommendations. On the other hand, considering that there is so little to offer to back pain patients, I concede that this is an area that should be studied further. Meanwhile, one could argue that Tai Chi can be fun and is devoid of risks – so, why not give it a try?

Some national and international guidelines advise physicians to use spinal manipulation for patients suffering from acute (and chronic) low back pain. Many experts have been concerned about the validity of this advice. Now an up-date of the Cochrane review on this subject seems to provide clarity on this rather important matter.

Its aim was to assess the effectiveness of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) as a treatment of acute low back pain. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) testing manipulation/mobilization in adults with  low back pain of less than 6-weeks duration were included. The primary outcome measures were pain, functional status and perceived recovery. Secondary endpoints were return-to-work and quality of life. Two authors independently conducted the study selection, risk of bias assessment and data extraction. The effects were examined for SMT versus  inert interventions, sham SMT,  other interventions, and for SMT as an adjunct to other forms of treatment.

The researchers identified 20 RCTs with a total number of 2674 participants, 12 (60%) RCTs had not been included in the previous version of this review. Only 6 of the 20 studies had a low risk of bias. For pain and functional status, there was low- to very low-quality evidence suggesting no difference in effectiveness of SMT compared with inert interventions, sham SMT or as adjunct therapy. There was varying quality of evidence suggesting no difference in effectiveness of SMT compared with other interventions. Data were sparse for recovery, return-to-work, quality of life, and costs of care.

The authors draw the following conclusion: “SMT is no more effective for acute low back pain than inert interventions, sham SMT or as adjunct therapy. SMT also seems to be no better than other recommended therapies. Our evaluation is limited by the few numbers of studies; therefore, future research is likely to have an important impact on these estimates. Future RCTs should examine specific subgroups and include an economic evaluation.”

In other words, guidelines that recommend SMT for acute low back pain are not based on the current best evidence. But perhaps the situation is different for chronic low back pain? The current Cochrane review of 26 RCTs is equally negative: “High quality evidence suggests that there is no clinically relevant difference between SMT and other interventions for reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic low-back pain. Determining cost-effectiveness of care has high priority. Further research is likely to have an important impact on our confidence in the estimate of effect in relation to inert interventions and sham SMT, and data related to recovery.”

This clearly begs the question why many of the current guidelines seem to mislead us. I am not sure I know the answer to this one; however I suspect that the panels writing the guidelines might have been dominated by chiropractors and osteopaths or their supporters who have not exactly made a name for themselves for being impartial. Whatever the reason, I think it is time for a re-think and for up-dating guidelines which are out of date and misleading.

Similarly, it might be time to question for what conditions chiropractors and osteopaths, the two professions who use spinal manipulation/mobilisation most, do actually offer anything of real value at all. Back pain and SMT are clearly their domains; if it turns out that SMT is not evidence-based for back pain, what is left? There is no good evidence for anything else, as far as I can see. To make matters worse, there are quite undeniable risks associated with SMT. The conclusion of such considerations is, I fear, obvious: the value of and need for these two professions should be re-assessed.

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