MD, PhD, MAE, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

This systematic review, meta-analysis, and meta-regression investigated the effects of individualized interventions, based on exercise alone or combined with psychological treatment, on pain intensity and disability in patients with chronic non-specific low-back pain.

Databases were searched up to January 31, 2022, to retrieve respective randomized clinical trials of individualized and/or personalized and/or stratified exercise interventions with or without psychological treatment compared to any control.

The findings show:

  • Fifty-eight studies (n = 10084) were included. At short-term follow-up (12 weeks), low-certainty evidence for pain intensity (SMD -0.28 [95%CI -0.42 to -0.14]) and very low-certainty evidence for disability (-0.17 [-0.31 to -0.02]) indicates superior effects of individualized versus active exercises, and very low-certainty evidence for pain intensity (-0.40; [-0.58 to -0.22])), but not (low-certainty evidence) for disability (-0.18; [-0.22 to 0.01]) compared to passive controls.
  • At long-term follow-up (1 year), moderate-certainty evidence for pain intensity (-0.14 [-0.22 to -0.07]) and disability (-0.20 [-0.30 to -0.10]) indicates effects versus passive controls.

Sensitivity analyses indicate that the effects on pain, but not on disability (always short-term and versus active treatments) were robust. Pain reduction caused by individualized exercise treatments in combination with psychological interventions (in particular behavioral-cognitive therapies) (-0.28 [-0.42 to -0.14], low certainty) is of clinical importance.

The certainty of the evidence was downgraded mainly due to evidence of risk of bias, publication bias, and inconsistency that could not be explained. Individualized exercise can treat pain and disability in chronic non-specific low-back pain. The effects in the short term are of clinical importance (relative differences versus active 38% and versus passive interventions 77%), especially in regard to the little extra effort to individualize exercise. Sub-group analysis suggests a combination of individualized exercise (especially motor-control-based treatments) with behavioral therapy interventions to boost effects.

The authors concluded that the relative benefit of individualized exercise therapy on chronic low back pain compared to other active treatments is approximately 38% which is of clinical importance. Still, sustainability of effects (> 12 months) is doubtable. As individualization in exercise therapies is easy to implement, its use should be considered.

Johannes Fleckenstein, the 1st author from the Goethe-University Frankfurt, Institute of Sports Sciences, Department of Sports Medicine and Exercise Physiology, sees in the study “an urgent health policy appeal” to strengthen combined services in care and remuneration. “Compared to other countries, such as the USA, we are in a relatively good position in Germany. For example, we have a lower prescription of strong narcotics such as opiates. But the rate of unnecessary X-ray examinations, which incidentally can also contribute to the chronicity of pain, or inaccurate surgical indications is still very high.”

Personally, I find the findings of this paper rather unsurprising. As a clinician, many years ago, prescribing exercise therapy for low back pain was my daily bread. None of my team would have ever conceived the idea that exercise does not need to be individualized according to the needs and capabilities of each patient. Therefore, I suggest rephrasing the last sentence of the conclusion: As individualization in exercise therapies is easy to implement, its use should be standard procedure.

 

3 Responses to Individualized exercise therapy for chronic low back pain

  • I attempted to review a range of papers relating to physiotherapy for chronic pain without sufficient explanatory pathology and was unable to find any evidence that showed any program to be superior to merely remaining active.

    Psychotherapy appeared to offer non-existent, minimal, or moderate short term effects on quality of life scores compared to placebo, but no effect on medication or on pain scores, and unrelated to type of therapy utilised, more likely therapist effect.

    The important takeaway is that remaining as active as possible (within constraints, eg physical limitations, chronic fatigue, etc) is generally a good idea.

    My thoughts on all of this is that for this client group physiotherapists should not be prescribing individual exercises, nor graded exercise programs, but should be assisting and supporting clients to engage with appropriate and enjoyable activities which have a high likelihood of being sustainable.

    Unfortunately physios seem to be stuck on the “program” paradigm as a way of justifying their involvement in the treatment of this group. I think they have a vastly more important role to play.

  • There radio adverts for arch supports to help with lower back pain.

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