Is back stiffness all in the mind?
This is a small study but it reinforces my active approach to helping clients move well. Helen Potter FACP
New scientific evidence (Nature journal Scientific Reports by Dr T Stanton Uni SA’s School of Health Sciences) shows – for the first time – that feelings of back stiffness may purely be a protective mechanism. We stop moving because we think this will avoid further injury. The risk you feel depends on what you have been told and what you believe.
The paper provides evidence that the perception of back stiffness has no bearing on the actual state of the joints and that feelings of stiffness can ease by using certain sounds.
The clinical pain neuroscience researcher undertook a series of experiments, building on experiences of amputees who still report stiffness in joints which they no longer have. We applied pressure to fifteen people, with chronic lower back pain with feelings of back stiffness, paired with different sounds. Another control group of 15 healthy individuals with no back issues were also tested.
“We know that millions of people around the world have chronic lower back conditions but the feeling of stiffness may not actually reflect how bad their back is,” Dr Stanton said.
“In theory, people who feel back stiffness should have a stiffer spine than those who do not. We found this was not the case in reality.
The amount people protect their back is a better predictor of how stiff their back feels.
“People with chronic back pain and stiffness overestimate how much force is being applied to their backs – they are more protective of their back. How much they overestimate this force relates to how stiff their backs felt – the stiffer the back felt, the more they overestimate force.
This suggests that feelings of stiffness are a protective response, people are more likely to avoid movement.
“Secondly, we these feelings can be modulated using different sounds. The feeling of stiffness was worse with creaky door sounds and less with gentle whooshing sounds. This raises the possibility that we can clinically target stiffness without focusing on the joint itself but using other senses,” she said.
“Back Stiffness” can be overcome
The breakthrough provides hope for the 632 million people worldwide who suffer from low back pain (approximately 10% of the global population) and cannot find any relief.
“The brain uses information from numerous different sources including sound, touch, and vision,
to create feelings such as stiffness,”
Dr Stanton said. “If we can manipulate those sources of information, we then potentially have the ability to manipulate feelings of stiffness. This opens the door for new treatment possibilities which is incredibly exciting”.
The current dynamic approach to physiotherapy for back pain and stiffness is to determine why you have a restriction. We ask about your knowledge of your spine, what you have been told about why you have pain, and how you think your back moves.
We look at why you are overprotecting your back and teach you how to move again. More smoothly and confidently. You can harness the power of your mind. You can help yourself improve.
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