SYDNEY — Back pain is a torturous condition that makes daily life miserable for hundreds of millions across the globe.
But could it really make you die faster, too?
Yes, according to a team of researchers that just published their provocative findings in the European Journal of Pain.
The team, led by professor Paulo Ferreira, a physiotherapy researcher at Australia’s University of Sydney, compared the cardiovascular mortality rates of 4,390 Danish twins 70 years old and above.
Back pain sufferers were 13% more likely to die prematurely, his team found.
But there’s a caveat: Ferreira doesn’t actually know why.
A sufferer’s back condition, it turns out, does not contribute – at least not directly — to a faster death. In fact, there is no known physiological relationship between the two conditions.
Instead, back pain appears to reflect poor health in other areas of the body that makes cardiovascular death more likely.
It’s a classic case of “correlation without causality.”
“These findings warrant further investigation because while there is a clear link between back pain and mortality we don’t know yet why this is so. Spinal pain may be part of a pattern of poor health and poor functional ability, which increases mortality risk in the older population,” Ferreira said in a University of Sydney release.
Whatever the cause, the Ferreira team’s findings could have enormous implications for primary care, especially for older adults. If back pain is a predictor of early mortality, it should be treated as a symptom of poor heath and used as a screening tool for other possible conditions.
“With a rapidly growing ageing population, spinal health is critical in maintaining older age independence, highlighting the importance of spinal pain in primary health care as a presenting symptom,” said Dr. Matthew Hernandez, who assisted Ferreira with the study.
According to available estimates, the lifetime prevalence rate for non-specific back pain is 84%, which means the vast majority of people suffer from it at some point in their life. The rate for chronic low back pain is 23% and of these, about half are functionally disabled.
However, studies show that chronic back pain remains highly resistant to treatment.
“Medications are mostly ineffective, surgery usually does not offer a good outcome – the best treatment for low back pain is a healthy lifestyle, including physical activity. People need to get moving,” professor Ferreira said.
A previous Ferreira-led study found that depression sufferers were 60% more likely to develop low back pain. In fact, cognitive therapies may be more effective than physical therapies in relieving the mental and emotional underpinnings of back pain, some studies show.