Back Pain. Latest Research.

Health authorities are increasingly concerned with the number of deaths resulting from opioid abuse. According to the US Health Resources and & Service Administration (HRSA) , more than 130 people a day die from opioid-related drug overdoses.  Thus,  researchers are constantly looking into effective, alternative solutions for treating pain- including low back pain. 

Virtual reality (VR) device 

In November 2021, the FDA approved the first home VR device for treating chronic low back pain in adults. The device- EaseVRx headset is based on guided virtual reality programs to help the user meditate, relax, meditate and distract himself from the pain.  The programs included cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT), and the user spends an average of 6-7 minutes daily going through exercises like diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness exercises, relaxation techniques, and games targeting the executive function. The company already conducted two randomized controlled trials that evaluated the benefits of this VR-based therapy. One study found that this therapy is feasible and scalable, while the second study found that using this program is effective to improve multiple chronic pain outcomes. 

Low-intensity laser therapy (LLLT)

Also known as photobiomodulation, low-intensity laser therapy (LLT) has been researched for over five decades for therapeutic purposes. However, this therapy had become popular only in recent years, as studies confirmed the benefits of LLLT. This therapy is mostly recommended for pain relief skin conditions ranging from antiaging to eczema and wound healing, for its antimicrobial effects. LLLT is also used in dentistry and the pediatric population. 

LLLT is considered a safe, non-invasive therapy with significant anti-inflammatory effects.  The light spectrum in these devices includes infrared and visible spectrum. These soft lasers used in LLLT do not contain UV radiation and don’t generate heat.  

Numerous research studies evaluated the benefits of LLT for managing low back pain. It appears to work well for both acute and chronic forms of back pain.  LLT was found to be an effective method to reduce pain and disability associated with low back pain. One study found that  LLT plus exercise is more effective than exercise alone to manage back pain – long term.  A variety of LLLT devices are available for home use or in health clinics. Choose a device from a reputable company that had been tested over a cheap unbranded product. Alternatively, consult a physiotherapist, massage therapist, or chiropractor who offers LLLT. A typical session lasts up to 30 minutes, one-two treatment weekly, then monthly sessions for maintenance. Many people feel improvements after one treatment. 

breathing exercises

Ultrasound therapy  

Ultrasound therapy is commonly used for low back pain by physical therapists, osteopaths, chiropractors, and sports medicine professionals. This therapy involves the use of sound waves or vibrations, applied with a handheld machine on the skin of the low back. These devices deliver heat and energy to the affected area, to decrease pain and speed up the recovery process. There are different devices available, providing ultrasound waves in either continuous or pulsed fashion. 

A 2021 review of multiple studies involving almost 700 participants found that ultrasound therapy led to statistically significant improvement in a pain score (VAS score) and can be an alternative treatment to provide pain relief for individuals with non -specific chronic low back pain. The number of sessions will depend on whether this therapy is used alone or with other therapies, for example once or twice weekly for 4-6  weeks. 

Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS)

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation ( or TENS) involves the use of a handheld battery-operated device that delivers low voltage electrical current through electrodes that are placed on the skin. The electrodes are placed at special trigger points or near nerves where the pain is experienced. TENS work because the electric current stimulates the nerves involved in blocking the pain. Electric stimulation also seems to increase the levels of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that also have painkiller qualities. 

Some research studies found that TENS reduces the pain in acute low back pain, and also chronic, non-specific low back pain

There are many devices for home use available on the market, some have added EMS (electrical muscle stimulation). EMS targets the stimulation of the muscles in the affected (painful) area. For optimal benefits, choose a brand from a reputable company. Contraindications of TENS at specific locations (ie chest, pelvis, abdomen, head)  include heart diseases, deep venous thrombosis, bleeding disorders seizures, pregnancy, and cancer. 

As you can see, there are plenty of non-drug options available. Light therapy, ultrasound waves, e-stimulation, and even virtual reality can stimulate the musculoskeletal structures and relieve pain. Although home devices are widely available, it is best to learn from a physiotherapist the correct way to use these devices.  They can be used in combination with pain medication, massage therapy, acupuncture, or other therapeutic modalities. A healthcare professional can put together a custom plan for you and also recommend a specific brand, as many devices available on the market don’t work or lack quality control.