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Walking and strength training for chronic back pain: no difference

PainSci » bibliography » Shnayderman et al 2013
Tags: treatment, back pain, exercise, pain problems, spine, self-treatment

PainSci commentary on Shnayderman 2013: ?This page is one of thousands in the bibliography. It is not a general article: it is focused on a single scientific paper, and it may provide only just enough context for the summary to make sense. Links to other papers and more general information are provided wherever possible.

Some evidence suggests that the type of exercise you do for back pain is less important than just getting enough of any kind of exercise (Ferreira 2010). So, what works better for chronic low back pain: increasing back strength? Or just a good brisk daily walk?

Researchers compared these approaches in 52 typical patients (all without much exercise in their lives to begin with). Half of them walked on treadmill twice a week for six weeks, while the other half did “active movements and strengthening exercises for the trunk and upper and lower limbs” — the kind of supposedly good-for-your-back strength training the average person fully expects to be prescribed.

The results of each approach were indistinguishable: they all “improved with similar achievements in all outcome measures.”

The inevitable objection to this study is that twice per week for six weeks is just not enough for a difference to emerge, and the researchers know this, but because their experiment “was conducted in the physical therapy department of a public health organization, it has to be feasible and applicable in the future for the therapist and patients” — and that’s a reasonable limitation. More demanding exercise prescriptions are usually a prescription for failure for most sedentary people (the efficacy versus effectiveness problem, see Beedie 2016).

It is possible that a more intense and long term effort — say, 4 days/week for 6 months — would be a completely different story, and we see signs of that from other research (Ylinen 2007 found that persistence paid doing strength training for neck pain). It’s also possible it would not be a different story (according to Smith et al there is “strong evidence stabilisation exercises are not more effective than any other form of active exercise in the long term”).

~ Paul Ingraham

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