Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The key to low back pain- stratification and the Katie Couric effect

What is the best way to treat low back pain?

I get asked this question all the time, whether I am seeing patients in my Sports & Spine clinic, lecturing at national meetings, or meeting with other experts.

There is one key to management of low back pain- stratification.

What I mean by this is that low back pain is not one diagnosis, and therefore trying to treat all low back pain with one approach is not effective. In a typical day, I may see patients who have many different causes of low back pain, all of which are best managed with different treatment approaches. The approach to managing an annular tear in a 23 year old Ironman triathlete is dramatically different than that of a 74 year old with zygapophysial joint arthropathy, which is dramatically different than the approach in a 34 year old woman with post-partum pelvic floor dysfunction.

Some of these patients I manage with an exercise program, others I may manage with an image-guided injection, and others I may manage by working in a team with the physical therapist or chiropractor. The key is that I recognize that every patient is different, and no one approach will work for everyone.

Unfortunately, many treatment recommendations are based on the assumption that low back pain should be treated as one entity, and therefore one basic approach should be used.

So, if you have low back pain, the biggest determinant in getting better is appropriate stratification into the appropriate treatment groups. Some of this is related to determining the appropriate diagnosis, but often times we can stratify patients into appropriate treatment groups even if we don't know the actual diagnosis.

For example, many patients are surprised to find out that if you want to get better, it is more valuable to know a patient's directional preference (i.e., which movements are most painful, such as putting on shoes and socks in the morning) than it is to look at an MRI. If I know that a patient hurts more with certain movements, I can design a physical therapy program that takes this into account. This is of great benefit to this physical therapist, and as Audrey Long demonstrated in her award winning research in 2004, if we design physical therapy programs with a directional preference in mind, the probability of improvement increases dramatically.

But I have many patients say to me "I hear you, but I've always been told that if you really want to know what is causing my low back pain, I need an MRI." MRIs are wonderful tools, but the reason they are not as helpful as you might imagine is because of what I call the "Katie Couric Effect."

We all know Katie Couric. Back in 2000, in the days before we had HD televisions, we didn't notice that she was actually a woman in her 40s. When she started working for CBS on the nightly news, two things happened- Katie Couric turned 50, and many of us started watching her in HD television.

Katie Couric is a very attractive woman, but when you look at her in HD television, many things are suddenly apparent that were not apparent on a regular television. She is the same woman that she was on a regular television, but because of the higher resolution of the TV, we are now more aware of some of the natural changes associated with aging that we would have been blissfully ignorant of otherwise.

Same thing with back MRIs. Just as the natural processes of aging can bring along gray hair and wrinkles, the normal healthy spine has some age-associated changes, including degeneration of the disks and joints. Much of this is incidental, and therefore when we look at a spine MRI, most of what we are looking at is incidental findings. And often times, the main cause of low back pain may not be seen on MRI.

Which brings me back to what is the best way to treat low back pain. The key is to find someone you trust who is able to figure out what is the best treatment approach for you. That person may be a Sports & Spine PM&R physician like myself, it may be a surgeon, it may be a chiropractor, it may be a physical therapist, it may be an accupuncturist, etc.

Ultimately, you need someone who can see you as an individual, and has the skill set necessary to tailor a program that is appropriate for you.

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