Drugs that treat back pain also improve productivity

May 27, 2003

A groundbreaking study from the University of Alberta shows that painkillers not only relieve lower back pain but they should improve functionality as well--a finding that may have great significance on the number one problem facing the workforce in North America.

The research team lead by the U of A's Director of Pain Medicine, Dr. Saifee Rashiq, has provided the first evidence that giving people drugs to treat back pain can improve performance. Numerous studies have investigated how opioid pain killers lessen the pain, but none have been able to show that painkillers improve productivity--until now.

"In many cases we don't know why people have chronic back pain and why they suffer greatly--they are treated with painkillers without knowing exactly what the problem is," said Rashiq, adding there is often very little damage actually seen by doctors. "They feel better but their lives don't seem to be more productive--they don't go back to work, don't do more around the house and we wanted to look at this. Our study shows that drugs should get them working, so we're not sure why they're not."

It is estimated that more than $80 billion dollars a year is spent on back pain and is the leading cause of disability between the ages of 19 to 45. Longer-lasting episodes of back pain that significantly interfere with functional activities--sleeping, sitting, standing, walking, bending, riding in or driving a car--tend to develop a chronic condition.

Rashiq and his research team ran a randomized controlled trial where they took a group of people with low back pain and injected them with a strong narcotic painkiller. Instead of only asking how they felt, participants were asked to complete the Sorensen test--a standard exercise used for testing back function.

"We found that when we gave them the painkiller, the pain went down and the functionality increased," said Rashiq. "What happens is that people say 'my back hurts and I can't do certain things.' We give them drugs and they still can't do these things. Why not? Is it psychological or social? Have they forgotten how to reintegrate into society? We've shown that drugs ought to get these people to be functioning again.

"This is a small grain of sand in the puzzle, but we're very excited that for the first time we have been able to show an increase in productivity."

Matthew Koller, a PhD student who helped administer the Sorensen test in this study, is presenting the findings this week at the American College of Sports Medicine in San Francisco from May 28 to 30.
-end-


University of Alberta

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