Practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) often argue against treating back problems with drugs. They also frequently defend their own therapy by claiming it is backed by published guidelines. So, what should we think about guidelines for the management of back pain?
This systematic review was aimed at:
- systematically evaluating the literature for clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) that included the pharmaceutical management of non-specific LBP;
- appraising the methodological quality of the CPGs;
- qualitatively synthesizing the recommendations with the intent to inform non-prescribing providers who manage LBP.
The authors searched PubMed, Cochrane Database of Systematic Review, Index to Chiropractic Literature, AMED, CINAHL, and PEDro to identify CPGs that described the management of mechanical LBP in the prior five years. Two investigators independently screened titles and abstracts and potentially relevant full text were considered for eligibility. Four investigators independently applied the Appraisal of Guidelines for Research and Evaluation (AGREE) II instrument for critical appraisal. Data were extracted for pharmaceutical intervention, the strength of recommendation, and appropriateness for the duration of LBP.
Only nine guidelines with global representation met the eligibility criteria. These CPGs addressed pharmacological treatments with or without non-pharmacological treatments. All CPGs focused on the management of acute, chronic, or unspecified duration of LBP. The mean overall AGREE II score was 89.3% (SD 3.5%). The lowest domain mean score was for applicability, 80.4% (SD 5.2%), and the highest was Scope and Purpose, 94.0% (SD 2.4%). There were ten classifications of medications described in the included CPGs: acetaminophen, antibiotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, oral corticosteroids, skeletal muscle relaxants (SMRs), and atypical opioids.
The authors concluded that nine CPGs, included ten medication classes for the management of LBP. NSAIDs were the most frequently recommended medication for the treatment of both acute and chronic LBP as a first line pharmacological therapy. Acetaminophen and SMRs were inconsistently recommended for acute LBP. Meanwhile, with less consensus among CPGs, acetaminophen and antidepressants were proposed as second-choice therapies for chronic LBP. There was significant heterogeneity of recommendations within many medication classes, although oral corticosteroids, benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, and antibiotics were not recommended by any CPGs for acute or chronic LBP.
Oddly, this review was published by chiros in a chiro journal. The authors mention that nearly all guidelines the included CPGs recommended non-pharmacological treatments for non-specific LBP, however it was not always delineated as to precede or be used in conjunction with pharmacological intervention.
I find the review interesting because I think it suggests that:
- CPGs are not the most reliable form of evidence. Their guidance depends on how up-to-date they are and on the identity and purpose of the authors.
- Guidelines are therefore often contradictory.
- Back pain is a symptom for which currently no optimal treatment exists.
- The most reliable evidence will rarely come from CPGs but from rigorous, up-to-date, independent systematic reviews such as those from the Cochrane Collaboration.
So, the next time chiropractors osteopaths, acupuncturists, etc. tell you “BUT MY THERAPY IS RECOMMENDED IN THE GUIDELINES”, please take it with a pinch of salt.