Chiropractic + Naturopathic Doctor

They’ve got your back

By Uyen VU   

Features Research

It’s difficult for people to understand how debilitating back pain can be until they experience it.

It’s difficult for people to understand how debilitating back pain can be until they experience it. Andrea Furlan had a first-hand encounter with it last spring, and despite her many years of researching and treating the condition, the episode was eye-opening.

“The pain was constant. It was hard to sit, but it was also hard to move,” says Dr. Furlan, an associate scientist at the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) and the new coordinating editor at the Cochrane Back Review Group. She had to keep a sense of panic in check. Once she ruled out more serious problems by completing a diagnostic tool, she tried not to think of the pain in catastrophic terms.


“I had to remind myself that the acute pain will eventually go away,” says Furlan. “I knew this, but it didn’t make it feel better.”

The episode was a powerful reminder of the potentially life-altering impact of pain. Back pain is one of the most common health problems in industrialized countries, but it’s also very misunderstood. About eight in 10 people in industrialized nations are expected to experience low-back pain at some point in their lives.

Pain in the lower back is sometimes caused by an ordinary activity – like coughing too hard, in Furlan’s case. Often, it goes away after a couple of weeks. But about 10 to 15 per cent of the time, the pain lingers for months, potentially developing into chronic pain. And in some people, the pain comes back again and again over the years, for no clear reason.

Clinicians still know very little about why or how acute pain leads to chronic pain. And once the pain becomes chronic, they know very little about how to treat it. In addition to that knowledge gap – or perhaps because of it – there’s a real tendency on some patients’ parts to perceive the pain as a lifelong disabling condition.

Overtaken by discomfort, people with low-back pain will often consider an array of treatments – including some with questionable evidence. As one retired nurse from Hamilton, Ont., puts it, “I’ve tried physiotherapy, exercise, acupuncture, a TENS unit, a body cast. If it was available, I’ve tried it. I will admit I even had a laying on of hands.”

To Furlan and her fellow researchers at the Cochrane Back Review Group (informally referred to as the Back Group), that desperate need among patients and clinicians for guidance about how to treat or cope with back pain is what drives their research agenda. Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, the Back Group was set up to bring forward evidence-based health interventions for neck and back pain and other types of spinal disorders (though fractures and inflammatory diseases are outside its scope).

Hosted by the IWH in Toronto, the Back Group is one of 53 groups that make up the Cochrane Collaboration. The Collaboration is an international effort to improve health care by shining a light on the best evidence available. It, too, is celebrating an anniversary this year – its 20th.

“In the early years, our work was very much about sorting through the weaknesses in the literature on this condition,” says IWH senior scientist Dr. Claire Bombardier, who co-founded the Back Group along with the world-renowned Swedish orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Alf Nachemson. “The literature at the time was very compartmentalized. It had a very surgical approach, and many of the randomized controlled trials that were done at the time didn’t have high quality methodology.”

The bread and butter of Cochrane groups are systematic reviews. These research studies are conducted according to a format designed to be as scientifically rigorous as other forms of research such as experiments and trials.

In a systematic review, researchers set out with a clear question: “What’s the effectiveness of intervention X on those with condition Y?” They thoroughly search the scientific literature for the best available evidence on that question. They then review the studies carefully to grade each for the quality of the study design (were there control groups?), the strength of its findings (might there be other explanations for the results?) and so on.

The goal is to synthesize the available research for a wide audience – patients, clinicians, policy-makers and other scientists – and give them a sense of what works and what doesn’t. The reality tends to be less black and white, says Furlan. It is not often systematic reviews can say in a sweeping manner whether a given intervention works. It might work for a subset of patients but not another. Or, it might work in the short term but not the long run.

“Most of the interventions we’ve reviewed don’t fall into black and white boxes. They fall into a grey box in the middle. But even that is helpful,” says Furlan. “It’s helpful to patients and clinicians to know which treatments are in the grey zone, because it means that they could still try them. An intervention that doesn’t work for one person may still work for someone else.”

The scope of the group’s work is also expanding. In the early years, Back Group reviewers focused mainly on intervention treatments, and relatively little work was done on ways to diagnose and predict the outcome of the condition.

Today, the Back Group is starting to tackle different types of reviews. Furlan is now reviewing studies on opioid treatments to look for adverse outcomes. The group is also starting to assess the effectiveness of interventions in relation to cost – a real-world concern that hasn’t always been reflected in the scientific literature.

“The thinking about back pain has evolved tremendously,” says Bombardier. Increasingly, researchers and clinicians are starting to view back pain not as a one-time occurrence but as a recurring condition. From that perspective, researchers will need to do more long-term follow-up work to understand the different patterns of recurrence experienced by patients. “Most of the trials currently aren’t taking this into account.”

Furlan knows that, to the non-scientific world, progress on back pain may seem slow. She is optimistic, however, that the work of building evidence will matter over time.

 Uyen Vu  

Uyen Vu is a communications associate at the Institute for Work and Health and editor of the Institute’s newsletter, At Work. She can be reached at For more on the Institute, go to .

Print this page


Stories continue below