Does Chronic Back Pain Mean a Shorter Life?

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If your back hurts, you’ve likely never considered that it may shorten your life. However, new research conducted with that aim may surprise you as it did me. Let’s dive in.

What You Should Know About Chronic Back Pain

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, chronic low back pain (in 2010 statistics) was ranked in third place (behind heart disease and COPD) as most related to poor health. This was up three spots from just two decades before (1990 statistics) when it ranked in sixth place. Chronic back pain is defined as persistent back pain that lasts for at least 12 weeks. It can result from any number of issues—anything from minor to major sprains and injuries, such as lifting something the wrong way or being involved in a bad car accident; to a primarily sedentary lifestyle, where the muscles weaken and perhaps even begin to atrophy; to age-related diseases, such as osteoporosis, arthritis, or disc degeneration; or even damaged spinal structures, such as a pinched nerve, herniated disc, and so on.

A recently published study compared chronic back pain to no back pain in older women to investigate links between chronic back pain and all-cause mortality rates (death from any cause in which chronic low back pain may have contributed). Let’s take a look at what they found.

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Risk of Earlier Death Higher in Women with Chronic Back Pain

The purpose of the new study was to determine if there was an association between chronic or frequent back pain and death from any cause. The target of the study was women aged 65 and older. Subjects were categorized based on the frequency of back pain, which included no pain, pain that was not persistent, pain that was persistent but infrequent, and pain that was both persistent and frequent.

Over the 14-year follow-up, 56% of the women (all categories combined) died due to any cause, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other diseases. There was a big difference, however, in the mortality results between the no back pain women (53.5%) and the women with persistent and frequent back pain (65.8%). Researchers attributed disability due to limitations in activities of daily living caused by the frequent, persistent back pain to a large percentage of the deaths in this category.

What does this mean exactly? The more we ignore chronic and frequent back pain, the more the back pain begins to define our lives and our activities…and potentially, as this study suggests, even dictate our mortality. The solution is to address back pain as early as possible and to do so nonsurgically so more damage isn’t created in the process.

Treating Chronic Back Pain

Most physicians will first attempt to treat chronic back pain conservatively: ice, heating pads, stretching and strengthening exercises, physical therapy, and so on. Some may recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) or even opioids in more severe cases, but both are dangerous drugs and even ineffective for pain relief in some people. Likewise, steroid injections come with many well-known dangerous side effects and tend to diminish in their pain-relieving capacity with each repeated injection. Finally, the “last resort” available in the traditional orthopedics model is often surgery, such as a fusion, discectomy, radiofrequency ablation, and so on—most of which create more damage in the process of trying to achieve a goal, in this case relieving chronic back pain.

We approach back pain very differently. To get a sense of how we can use the patient’s own platelets or stem cells to treat back pain, watch my video below:

The upshot? In this study, women with more severe daily back pain had a higher risk of dying earlier. Why? Likely activity restriction, increased fall risk, and other things, like anti-inflammatory and narcotic pain medication use. However, the moral of the story is clear: if you have chronic low back pain, get it fixed without the risks of surgery.

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Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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