New research may help predict if acute back pain will turn into a chronic condition

Aug 2 2011
There are many reasons why people experience back pain - from a herniated disc to a sedentary lifestyle to sports injury - and the type of pain and its duration vary, as well.

Sometimes, the discomfort comes on suddenly and lasts from hours to several weeks, and resolves on its own with the use of anti-inflammatory medications, hot and cold compresses, or some bed rest.

However, that is not always the case, and if such pain lasts longer than six weeks, it may begin to qualify as a chronic condition.

For years, one of the main questions doctors and patients with acute back pain have asked themselves was how to predict if the discomfort is likely to go away or whether it will persist and become chronic.

A recent study conducted at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine sought to provide some answers to this.

The researchers enrolled 40 individuals with acute back pain and 37 with chronic back pain and asked them to fill out questionnaires on their pain intensity, use of medications and the presence of mood disorders.

The results suggested that individuals with chronic pain reported higher intensity of discomfort and their pain tended to be bilateral. Based on that, the team concluded that intensity and location can be used as good diagnostic tools to distinguish between acute pain and a condition that is more likely to persist.

Other studies also found evidence that individuals with sub-acute low back pain - which lasts from seven to 12 weeks - and who experience their symptoms when moving distal body parts have a poorer prognosis, i.e. a higher risk of progressing to chronic pain, than patients with more localized pain.

Statistics suggest that as many as 80 percent of Americans have experienced low back pain in their lifetimes. Health practitioners agree that exercising, maintaining proper weight and using conservative therapies such as anti-inflammatory medications or massages may help individuals with back pain reclaim their health and prevent the condition from progressing to the point where they may need surgery.