There is hardly a form of therapy under the SCAM umbrella that is not promoted for back pain. None of them is backed by convincing evidence. This might be because back problems are mostly viewed in SCAM as mechanical by nature, and psychological elements are thus often neglected.
This systematic review with network meta-analysis determined the comparative effectiveness and safety of psychological interventions for chronic low back pain. Randomised controlled trials comparing psychological interventions with any comparison intervention in adults with chronic, non-specific low back pain were included.
A total of 97 randomised controlled trials involving 13 136 participants and 17 treatment nodes were included. Inconsistency was detected at short term and mid-term follow-up for physical function, and short term follow-up for pain intensity, and were resolved through sensitivity analyses. For physical function, cognitive behavioural therapy (standardised mean difference 1.01, 95% confidence interval 0.58 to 1.44), and pain education (0.62, 0.08 to 1.17), delivered with physiotherapy care, resulted in clinically important improvements at post-intervention (moderate-quality evidence). The most sustainable effects of treatment for improving physical function were reported with pain education delivered with physiotherapy care, at least until mid-term follow-up (0.63, 0.25 to 1.00; low-quality evidence). No studies investigated the long term effectiveness of pain education delivered with physiotherapy care. For pain intensity, behavioural therapy (1.08, 0.22 to 1.94), cognitive behavioural therapy (0.92, 0.43 to 1.42), and pain education (0.91, 0.37 to 1.45), delivered with physiotherapy care, resulted in clinically important effects at post-intervention (low to moderate-quality evidence). Only behavioural therapy delivered with physiotherapy care maintained clinically important effects on reducing pain intensity until mid-term follow-up (1.01, 0.41 to 1.60; high-quality evidence).
Forest plot of network meta-analysis results for physical function at post-intervention. *Denotes significance at p<0.05. BT=behavioural therapy; CBT=cognitive behavioural therapy; Comb psych=combined psychological approaches; Csl=counselling; GP care=general practitioner care; PE=pain education; SMD=standardised mean difference. Physiotherapy care was the reference comparison group
The authors concluded that for people with chronic, non-specific low back pain, psychological interventions are most effective when delivered in conjunction with physiotherapy care (mainly structured exercise). Pain education programmes (low to moderate-quality evidence) and behavioural therapy (low to high-quality evidence) result in the most sustainable effects of treatment; however, uncertainty remains as to their long term effectiveness. Although inconsistency was detected, potential sources were identified and resolved.
The authors’ further comment that their review has identified that pain education, behavioural therapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy are the most effective psychological interventions for people with chronic, non-specific LBP post-intervention when delivered with physiotherapy care. The most sustainable effects of treatment for physical function and fear avoidance are achieved with pain education programmes, and for pain intensity, they are achieved with behavioural therapy. Although their clinical effectiveness diminishes over time, particularly in the long term (≥12 months post-intervention), evidence supports the clinical benefits of combining physiotherapy care with these specific types of psychological interventions at the onset of treatment. The small total sample size at long term follow-up (eg, for physical function, n=6986 at post-intervention v n=2469 for long term follow-up; for pain intensity, n=6963 v n=2272) has resulted in wide confidence intervals at this time point; however, the magnitude and direction of the pooled effects seemed to consistently favour the psychological interventions delivered with physiotherapy care, compared with physiotherapy care alone.
Commenting on their paper, two of the authors, Ferriera and Ho, said they would like to see the guidelines on LBP therapy updated to provide more specific recommendations, the “whole idea” is to inform patients, so they can have conversations with their GP or physiotherapist. Patients should not come to consultations with a passive attitude of just receiving whatever people tell them because unfortunately people still receive the wrong care for chronic back pain,” Ferreira says. “Clinicians prescribe anti-inflammatories or paracetamol. We need to educate patients and clinicians about options and more effective ways of managing pain.”
Is there a lesson here for patients consulting SCAM practitioners for their back pain? Perhaps it is this: it is wise to choose the therapy that has been demonstrated to be effective while having the least potential for harm! And this is not chiropractic or any other form of SCAM. It could, however, well be a combination of physiotherapeutic exercise and psychological therapy.