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  • For years, back pain sufferers have been offered prescription muscle relaxants as a remedy, but a new study conducted by researchers from Australia shows that those medications actually do very little to relieve pain.


    Writing in the noted medical journal BMJ, researchers from the Centre for Pain IMPACT at the University of New South Wales’ School of Health Sciences in Sydney explained that they reviewed 31 previously conducted studies that had included more than 6,500 lower back pain patients who had been treated with 18 different prescription muscle relaxants. Study author James McAuley says his group concluded that “most patients wouldn’t be able to feel any difference in their pain compared to taking a placebo, or sugar pill.”


    When combined with the increased risk of addiction, dizziness, drowsiness, headache and other side effects posed by these medications, the study’s authors hope that alternative remedies come into greater use for the condition that afflicts so many people. McAuley said, “Low back pain is extremely common. It is experienced by 7% of the global population at any one time. Most people, around 80%, will have at least one episode of low back pain during their life.” 


    One of the biggest challenges of treating lower back pain is the fact that it is hard to identify a specific cause. That makes identifying the correct treatment a challenge. Conservative treatment options include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, opioids, exercise therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.  The study’s determination that muscle relaxants offer neither a cure nor relief may have a profound effect on the estimated 30 million Americans for whom they are prescribed every year.


    The study’s authors are hopeful that a growing trend towards “demedicalizing” lower back pain will take hold. Demedicalization offers alternatives to medicine or surgery including increasing activity, exercising, and stretching. McAuley said, “We know that people with low back pain should avoid staying in bed and they should try to be active, and continue with usual activities, including work, as much as they can. People with recent onset low back pain should be provided with advice and education about the low back pain. They should be reassured that they do not have a serious condition, and that their low back pain is very likely to improve over time, whether or not they take medicines or other treatments.”


    Speaking of the study’s results, Dr. Daniel Park, an associate professor in the department of orthopedics at Oakland University’s William Beaumont School of Medicine in Rochester, Michigan said, “The problem is, back pain has so many causes.” He believes that the lack of a single successful treatment means that there may still be a place for short-term use muscle relaxants to help some patients, and particularly those suffering from muscle strain or herniated discs. He suggests that finding the cause of the pain is what’s most important, and that “Long-term, therapy and core strengthening will be much more beneficial.” 

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