As the opioid epidemic in Minnesota grows, a new study involving University of Minnesota researchers examines a method to treat back and neck pain without the use of prescription drugs.
The article, published late last month, was one of the first to look at the effectiveness of rehabilitative treatments in both short-term and long-term trials. While participants in both trials experienced improvements in pain and disability, there were no statistically significant differences between the short and long-term.
Back and neck pain are common symptoms in the elderly and are associated with significant disability, which can negatively impact general health, functional independence and quality of life, according to the article. Previously, exercise and spinal therapy treatments had only been studied on younger generations, said Michele Maiers, the study’s author and executive director of research and innovation at Northwestern Health Sciences University.
“There’s already pretty good literature supporting this treatment for other adults,” Maiers said. “This study was really answering the question in an older adult population where there is really a gap in knowledge.”
The participants of the study were older than 65 and have had pain for an extended amount of time. They were treated with spinal manipulative therapy combined with supervised rehabilitative exercises for either 12 or 36 weeks. The same treatments were delivered in both study groups, with the only exception being length of care, according to the article.
SRE consisted of an aerobic warm up, followed by a standardized program of stretching, strengthening and balance exercises used in previous research studies. SMT focused on manipulation, such as gentle soft tissue massage, heat or cold therapy and muscle stretching.
Rehabilitative medicine, such as the treatments used in the study, is often confused with physical therapy, said Stephanie Standal, a professor in the University's Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
“A lot of people get really confused with that,” Standal said. “They think rehabilitative medicine and physical therapy are pretty much the same thing.”
Standal added that rehabilitative medicine isn’t about diagnosing a person’s issues, but instead focuses on optimizing their function.
“We look at people as a whole and decide, ‘What can I do to make you the most functional in the current state that you’re in?’” she said.
Researchers say studying drug-free treatments is crucial. Opioid-related deaths are increasing at an alarming rate, according to data from the Minnesota Attorney General. They have killed more than 3,500 Minnesotans in the last 15 years, and nearly 70 percent of these deaths involved prescription drugs.
“Given the opioid misuse epidemic, and given that many older adults are already taking lots of different drugs for different conditions, it’s really important that we empower them with non-pharmacological options for treating neck and back-related pain,” Maiers said.
Without the use of drugs, a significant amount of participants in the study saw meaningful improvements in their neck and back-related disabilities and pain, she said.
“Pain management … is often under-appreciated and under-addressed,” said Roni Evans, one of the study’s researchers and a director at the University’s Integrative Health and Wellbeing Research Program. “A lot of the time, people can’t see the pain that you're struggling with. It’s a very internal, subjective process, but it can have such severe consequences.”
Moving forward, the researchers hope that the findings of the study lead to changes in treatment.
“I hope spinal manipulation and exercise are elevated as treatment recommendations for older adults with these conditions,” Maiers said. “And I hope more and more healthcare providers across disciplines who work with older adults present these viable treatment options to their patients.”