We all experience back pain from time to time, and chronic back pain is really quite common in our very sedentary society. Not only do we spend a lot of time sitting, even while at work, but we also spend much of our leisure time seated while in conversation, playing games or vegging out in front of the television. However, this is not a purely American problem, as the medical costs of sedentary lifestyles are problematic in many cultures all throughout the world.
A recent story on NPR discusses research on the treatment and prevention of back pain, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, and performed by University of Australia researcher Chris Maher with others in Brazil and Australia. These researchers found that our approach to managing back pain has been woefully inadequate, due in part to lack of exercise, but largely because of a flawed medical approach.
“While back belts and shoe insoles didn’t seem to offer a benefit, they determined, exercise reduced the risk of repeated low-back pain in the year following an episode between 25 and 40 percent. It didn’t really matter what kind of exercise — core strengthening, aerobic exercise, or flexibility and stretching,” according to NPR. Though the prescription of medical devices can be helpful, it is really getting up and being active that helps to truly reduce the risk of ongoing back pain. But since we tend to spend so much of our daily lives seated and inactive, and are so accustomed to quick fixes, that’s often just what the doctor will order instead of simply recommending more exercise.
“’If there were a pill out there that could reduce your risk of future episodes of back pain by 30 percent, I’d probably be seeing ads on television every night,’ says Dr. Tim Carey, an internist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who wrote an accompanying commentary in the journal. And yet, he says, health care providers don’t prescribe exercise nearly enough, given its effectiveness. Carey says fewer than half of patients participate in an exercise program, even if they have long-term back pain.”
Unfortunately, it’s really not too surprising that research on back pain treatment and prevention would conclude that the medical approach has not only been lacking in effectiveness, but economically wasteful at best and even detrimental to some patients at worst. Although there really is no quick fix when it comes to back pain, there are obviously some pretty expeditious and efficient methods to relieve pain. And for a chronic pain sufferer, having the ability to reduce back pain can be the one main difference between being completely sedentary and actually getting the necessary amount of exercise for effective treatment.
“In researching what docs do and don’t prescribe, Carey found that passive treatments were much more common, like ultrasound or traction treatments, back belts and orthotic insoles. ‘Prescribing ineffective treatments for patients may actually distract them and give them a false sense of security away from treatments that are actually beneficial,’ Carey says.
The discrepancy between what’s most effective and what’s most prescribed highlights a bigger problem: The health industry is centered on sellable products, and exercise isn’t one.”
However one actual product that is very beneficial and quite effective for back pain, but is also one that the health industry doesn’t seem interested in selling, is cannabis. Not only does it help relieve pain without the side effects and addiction problems that prescription opioids can lead to, but it also stimulates the body’s many integrated systems that work together to manage pain and stimulate immunological response. According to Dr. Malik Burnett, contributor to online medical cannabis resource, Medical Jane:
“The ability of cannabis therapy to help relieve chronic pain on multiple fronts rests squarely in the cannabinoid receptors – cannabinoid receptor type-1 (CB1) and type-2 (CB2). Studies have shown that CB1 receptors are located all over the body, however they have particularly high concentration in the central nervous system in areas that control pain perception. CB2 receptors, on the other hand, are primarily located in areas of the body that control immune function, such as the spleen, white blood cells, and tonsils.
The fact that these receptors are found in the two major body systems responsible for producing the sensation of pain, the immune system and the nervous system is what gives cannabis its therapeutic relevance in the chronic pain space. Additionally, and importantly, there are a lack of cannabinoid receptors in the brainstem region, the area of the brain responsible for controlling breathing, thus the dangerous side effect of respiratory depression found with high dose opioid use, is not a factor in cannabis therapy.”
Perhaps if the healthcare industry as a whole would emphasize prevention and cost-effective, practical treatments for such a common condition as back pain, we would begin to see a more holistic approach to medicine emerge. As it stands, doctors have more incentive to put their patients under the knife and to dole out prescriptions for painkillers and medical devices than they have to encourage self-care, herbal remedies, exercise and education. However, as more and more people realize that cannabis offers good relief for many of the things that ail us, the current healthcare providers will either have to transform their approach and innovate, or risk becoming obsolete.