Back stiffness may all be in the mind, say researchers

Tuesday, 12th September, 2017

Back stiffness may be the brain's way of protecting the back from further injury.

GOT a stiff back? Researchers think it may all be in your head.

A new University of South Australia study suggests feelings of back stiffness may be created by the brain as a way to protect against further injury.

"We know that millions of people around the world have chronic lower back conditions but the feeling of stiffness may not actually reflect how bad their back is," said lead researcher Tasha Stanton.

"In theory, people who feel back stiffness should have a stiffer spine than those who do not. We found this was not the case in reality. Instead, we found that that the amount they protected their back was a better predictor of how stiff their back felt.

Dr Stanton and her team applied pressure to the spine of 15 people with lower back pain, paired with different sounds. A group of 15 people without pain were also tested.

They found the people with chronic back pain and stiffness overestimated how much force was being applied to their backs. The stiffer the back felt, the more they overestimated force.

"This suggests that feelings of stiffness are a protective response, likely to avoid movement," Dr Stanton said.

The team also found these feelings could be modulated using different sounds.

"The feeling of stiffness was worse with creaky door sounds and less with gentle whooshing sounds. This raises the possibility that we can clinically target stiffness without focusing on the joint itself but using other senses," she said.

The breakthrough provides hope for the 632 million people worldwide who suffer from low back pain and cannot find any relief.

"The brain uses information from numerous different sources including sound, touch, and vision, to create feelings such as stiffness," Dr Stanton said.

"If we can manipulate those sources of information, we then potentially have the ability to manipulate feelings of stiffness. This opens the door for new treatment possibilities which is incredibly exciting".

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