Dr. Stolyar is Associate Director of Psychiatry at Boston Clinical Trials.
Almost everyone experiences low back pain every now and then. In fact, an astounding eight out of ten people will have back pain at some point in their lives; one out four Americans is experiencing back pain right now. What’s more, back pain is more than just an inconvenience or a “fact of life” to live with. Chronic back pain, i.e., lasting more than 3 months, can impair attention, weaken short-term memory, and negatively affect judgment and social skills. Not to mention its contribution to mood disorders, sleeping difficulties, and performance (or lack thereof) in bed.
Somewhat counterintuitively, people who work in offices are more likely to suffer chronic back pain than people who have physically demanding jobs. Evolutionary, to survive in the wilderness, our bodies are designed to run and climb, to move and fight. They are not intended to sit 8 or 10 hours almost motionless, staring at computer monitors. But sit we must and it causes all kinds of problems with skeletal weight load distribution, constrained blood supply, and nerve pinching – all causes of or contributing factors to back pain. In fact, the two most common causes of back pain are slouching in the chair and lack of movement during the work day.
Before I proceed further, let me make a disclaimer. Back pain could be a sign of a serious health problem: musculoskeletal, neurological, nephrological, or even oncological. The range of possible treatments is also very broad: from over-the-counter medications to very potent prescription drugs to surgical intervention. Several new, promising medications are in clinical trials. There are also alternative treatments: massage, physical therapy, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, and even yoga… Indeed, back pain diagnosis and treatment, particularly if the pain is severe or chronic, are best left to trained physicians.
Yet there are some steps that every back pain sufferer can take on his or her own. And your trusted iPhone is among the most valuable resources at your disposal. Here’s how you can use it to fight back.
1. Learn more about your condition. In the app store, there are at least two dozen apps that explain the causes of back pain, its triggers, contributing factors, and symptoms. Many of the application have advanced graphics or other interactive features. The depth of the explanation varies considerably: from relatively simple (e.g., Back Pain-Causes and Relief) to rather advanced (e.g., Back Pain: An Algorithmic Approach) to exhaustive (e.g., iSpinePainManagement). Choosing the “right” one may be a daunting task; fortunately, almost all of the apps offer free versions, so you can try several before buying
2. Track your pain. Among the first questions a doctor will ask when you see him/her for your back pain will be “How often? How strong? For how long? What triggers it?” Remembering each pain episode is difficult; few of us have discipline to keep a paper diary. As a result, information important for more accurate diagnosis is often lost. Applications such as Pain Logger or Pain Diary (both have free versions) can help. Your smartphone will remind you when to make new entries, guide you through the input process, and will allow you and your doctor to objectively see the progression of your condition or to track the effectiveness of treatments.
3. Improve your posture. As mentioned above, slouching is among the most common sources of back pain. Posture Aware (free version available) offers examples of correct and incorrect posture positions, an alarm to remind you to correct your posture, and the ability to track progress through photo analysis. Arguably, the most innovative approach is offered by LUMO. LUMOback is an appliance roughly the size of a credit card that’s worn like a belt against your lower back. It is packed with sensors and is paired with your iPhone. When you’re standing or sitting, it measures if you’re slouching (and to which side) and alerts you by vibrating. It also logs your posture over time and provides an ability to correlate your posture with pain. Untested yet, but really interesting!
4. Design and follow your exercise program. From simple stretching to pilates to yoga, there are literally tens of applications that promise to help. Just do it!
5. Give acupressure a try. Proponents of alternative medicine claim that acupressure could be effective in controlling back pain. Two applications: Free from Back Pain with Acupressure and No Back Pain – Instant Acupressure (both have free versions) promise to relieve your back pain without medications. We are yet to see the results of properly designed clinical trials that would confirm or invalidate the claim. Yet even if the relief is just a placebo effect, give it a try.
One last word. Needless to say, no matter how advanced you are in using your iPhone and how good these applications are, any and all of the step above are only supplements, not substitutes for a proper medical care.
Click here to learn more about Boston Clinical Trials and Back Pain studies being conducted.