People suffering from chronic back pain have been given hope with a potential new treatment that focuses on retraining how the back and the brain communicate.  

Perron Institute neuroscientist Dr Matthew Bagg, also a practising physiotherapist, had a key role in this research recently published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.  

The paper titled: ‘Effect of Graded Sensorimotor Retraining on Pain Intensity in Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial, views chronic back pain as a modifiable problem of the nervous system rather than focusing only on a disc, bone or muscle. 

Attracting national and international media interest, it challenges traditional treatments such as drugs, spinal manipulation, injections, surgery and spinal cord stimulators. 

Dr Bagg, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, is first author. He joined the Neurotrauma Research group (Curtin University and Perron Institute) headed by Professor Melinda (Lindy) Fitzgerald last year.  

In 2019, low back pain affected 568 million people worldwide (Global Burden of Disease study). 

“The new treatment approach is based on research indicating that the nervous system is importantly involved in back pain. Pain is about more than muscles and joints; it is ultimately a product of how our nervous system is functioning,” Dr Bagg said. 

“Graded sensorimotor retraining (RESOLVE) is a new treatment designed to alter how people think about their body in pain, how they process sensory information from their back, and how they move their back during activities.”  

The senior author is Professor James McAuley (University of New South Wales and Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). Researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the University of South Australia, among other Australian and European universities, also contributed. 

“Traditional therapies concentrate on fixing something in your back, injecting a disc, loosening up the joints or strengthening the muscles,” Professor McAuley said. “What makes sensorimotor retraining different is that it looks at the whole system – what people think about their back, how the back and brain communicate, how the back is moved, as well as the fitness of the back. 

“This is the first new treatment of its kind for back pain – the number one cause of the Global Disability Burden for the last 30 years – that has been tested against placebo. 

“What we observed in our trial was a clinically meaningful effect on pain intensity and on disability. People were happier, reporting that their backs felt better and their quality of life was better.”  

The study authors say more research is needed to replicate these results and to test the treatment in different settings and populations. 

The study was funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. 

Article based on UNSW and NeuRA statement. 

Photo credit: NeuRA.