The Link Between Back Pain and Your Job

Last Updated May 18, 2011 12:59 PM EDT

Treating your low back pain may improve the way you think and perform at work. Not only that, getting rid of chronic pain can cause your brain to grow new grey matter. That is the conclusion of new research.

An estimated one in 10 people suffer from chronic low back pain. which is the leading cause of disability in working-aged people. In recent years, researchers have been studying the long term effects of pain on the brain and have found that people with chronic pain experience cognitive impairments and even a shrinking of gray matter in parts of the brain associated with pain processing and emotions like depression and anxiety. Studies suggest that cognitive impairment could be a result of the demands that pain puts on the cognitive brain networks. In other words, not only is pain a distraction, but its overtaxing your neural networks and preventing your brain from performing at its peak.

The new study, published in the May issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, measured the thickness of parts of the brain and brain function during a demanding task in 18 people who had experienced low back pain (rated at least a 4 out of 10 on the pain scale) for at least one year, and who were planning to have treatment--either a spinal surgery or a nerve block. Subjects had thinner cortical thickness than controls and abnormal activity during an attention-demanding task. Six months after they underwent their back treatment, those whose pain was successfully treated had regained cortical thickness and had normal brain activity during the cognitive task.

"If you can make the pain go away with effective treatment," said the study's senior author, Laura S. Stone from McGill University's Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain, "you can reverse these abnormal changes in the brain."

Many people put up with their chronic pain, assuming it's better to cope with it than to treat it, but this study and the research on the long term effects of pain, demonstrate that the benefits of treating pain may go beyond simply feeling better.

The majority of people suffering low back pain don't need surgery or pain blocks, though some people with more severe problems like compression fractures or pinched nerves do. Here's what helps for the majority of sufferers:

  • Walking. Research has shown that many people recover from back pain simply by walking, increasing their level of exercise and doing active physical therapy (as opposed to passive therapy where someone is giving you treatments). Exercise strengthens muscles to support the back, keeps them from weakening and helps prevent future re-injuries.
  • Heat and massage. Studies show that heat can help acute low back pain, almost as much as taking ibuprofen, and massage is mildly to moderately effective. Other types of passive physical therapy like electric stimulation have not been shown to be effective in reducing pain.
  • Tylenol and Advil. Most low back pain subsides in a month or two, especially if you stay active, so take these over-the-counter pain medicines over the short term to get some relief. Since even OTC medications do have risks, talk to your doctor if you're taking these for more than a few days in a row.
  • Get cognitive behavioral therapy. Your pain processing and emotion processing centers of the brain are intertwined, so learning how to change the way you think about pain can help reduce it. CBT, which is usually short term therapy, also addresses sleep issues, stress and anxiety.
How has back pain affected your job?

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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy of flickr user Nick J Webb
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.