Low back pain is a part of life—common across sexes, age groups, and countries, it’s something that almost all people experience at some point. Treatment for low back pain often includes a combination of medication and non-medication options. What should you start with? What treatments have the best evidence? And more importantly . . . what’s coming our way for low back pain treatment?
To start #OldSchool—the best evidence exists for these three treatments:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Which NSAID? Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and celecoxib (Celebrex) are common examples. There does not appear to be a “best” NSAID for low back pain from the evidence. Start with low doses and go higher if needed, aiming for short term use. If you can’t take NSAIDS (stomach issues, kidney problems) take acetaminophen (Tylenol) instead.
- Muscle relaxants. Adding a muscle relaxant to an NSAID improves low back pain. Start with one that doesn’t make you tired like methocarbamol (Robaxin) or metaxalone (Skelaxin). See my previous blog here for full discussion on muscle relaxants for low back pain.
- Heat. Superficial heat for low back pain has been shown to help. There is moderate evidence from a small number of studies that heat wrap therapy provides short-term reduction in pain and disability in those with acute or sub-acute low-back pain (less than 12 weeks). When using heat wraps, use them only for 15-20 minutes at a time. Don’t fall asleep with them on.
Ok, then what’s next for back pain?
- Physical therapist or chiropractor. To sum up the evidence here: for low back pain, physical therapy and chiropractic manipulation have similar effects on symptoms, function, satisfaction with care, disability, recurrences of back pain, and subsequent visits for back pain. So think of them as being equally effective. I’d pick whichever one is more convenient and covered more by your insurance.
- Other exercise therapy. For example,yoga, tai chi or qigong. There is fair evidence that yoga and movement therapies will help for your back pain. Pursue them on your own and stick with one that interests you the most and is the most convenient.
- Other alternative therapies. Mindfulness stress reduction (meditation + yoga) and cognitive behavioral therapy outperformed NSAIDS in a recent study. Both are worth a try for sure if you are struggling with low back pain. Acupuncture, though—not so much. In the last two years a review of scientific evidence found the practice of acupuncture was no better than placebo in treating those living with low back pain and sciatica. Gua sha is another alternative therapy that may exhibit a more long-lasting anti-inflammatory effect relative to hot pack for pain relief and improved mobility in elderly patients with chronic low back pain.
What’s next for those with chronic, neuropathic (nerve-like) low back pain?
- Gabapentin (Neurontin) or duloxetine (Cymbalta) have the best evidence in addition to the above listed options for nerve-like pain in your low back that may radiate down your buttock or leg. Tramadol (Ultram) may also be added to your regimen at this point.
- The hot-button issue: Opioids for low back pain. Opioids are no more effective than NSAIDS for low back pain and have a high rate of adverse effects (the understatement of the year). Avoid opioids at all costs for low back pain.
Moving on—invasive procedures:
- Epidural steroid injections. Steroid injections in the lumbar spine are performed by pain management or interventional radiologists, and they do work. Epidural injections done with several approaches (interlaminar, caudal, or transforaminal) have been shown to reduce pain and disability short term (usually at 2 weeks) and help delay the need for surgical intervention. Epidural steroid injections may provide relief for a period of time and additional repeat injections are an option if pain recurs.
The future—and beyond:
- Radiofrequency denervation aka radiofrequency ablation (RFA) was the rising star, but a recent large study revealed disappointing results. RFA is a medical procedure where the nerve is ablated (the nerve endings are deadened) using high frequency alternating current. But does it work for chronic low back pain? Not so well. A recent study (JAMA July 4; 318(1):68-81) found radiofrequency denervation added to a standardized exercise program for chronic low back pain resulted in either no improvement or no clinically important improvement compared with a standardized exercise program alone. To sum it up: the findings do not support the use of radiofrequency denervation to treat chronic low back pain originating in the facet joints, sacroiliac joints, or intervertebral disks. Disappointing.
- Platelet rich plasma. Platelet rich plasma (PRP) has shown promising results when injected into the intervertebral disc and is currently being studied. PRP is high in growth factors, which is why it’s being studied, yet there are no active studies for low back pain being done. Will PRP help for low back pain? We don’t know yet, and won’t for a while.
- Stem cell therapy to regenerate cells and increase disc matrix production (the gel- like central part of the disc) is also currently being researched. This may be coming our way for low back pain, but no results yet.
- Cannabis. Studies on cannabis/medical marijuana are limited because it is still illegal under federal law, but several trials have evaluated the effectiveness of cannabis for patients with neuropathic pain. Patients with nerve pain from spinal stenosis or degenerative disc disease show a 30% improvement in chronic pain score following cannabis therapy. Pain relief provided by cannabis is dose-dependent, with higher THC content producing more pronounced pain relief. Know this: the strains of cannabis containing high levels of CBD (cannabidiol) generally make patients feel less high, since CBD acts as an antagonist to the psychoactive effect of THC. Consider starting with high-CBD, low-THC strains if you are concerned about feeling high.
What has helped for you?