New Guidelines Offer Little Relief for Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning” doesn’t cut it anymore for low back pain. In fact, very little does.

One in four adults will experience low back pain in the next three months, making it one of the most common reasons for Americans to visit a doctor. But when it comes to treating low back pain, the American College of Physicians (ACP) says the evidence is weak for many pharmaceutical and non-drug therapies.

In fact, the best treatment for acute low back pain may be none at all.

"Physicians should reassure their patients that acute and subacute low back pain usually improves over time regardless of treatment," said Nitin Damle, MD, president of ACP. "Physicians should avoid prescribing unnecessary tests and costly and potentially harmful drugs, especially narcotics, for these patients."

An ACP review committee analyzed dozens of clinical studies to arrive at new guidelines for treating acute back pain (pain lasting less than 4 weeks), subacute back pain (pain lasting 4 to 12 weeks) and chronic back pain (pain lasting more than 12 weeks).  

The ACP recommends that doctors start with non-drug therapies, such as exercise and superficial heat with a heating pad, along with massage, acupuncture, spinal manipulation (chiropractic), tai chi, and yoga. The evidence for the effectiveness of exercise and superficial heat was considered moderate, while the evidence for the other non-drug treatments was considered low quality.

Only when non-drug treatments have failed does the ACP recommend medication for chronic low back pain, starting with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin. Tramadol (a mild acting opioid) and duloxetine (Cymbalta) are recommended as second line therapies. The ACP says physicians should only consider stronger opioids as a third line therapy when all other treatments have failed.

The evidence for the effectiveness of NSAIDs and opioids was classified as moderate, while the evidence for acetaminophen, benzodiazepines and systemic steroids was considered low-quality.

"For the treatment of chronic low back pain, physicians should select therapies that have the fewest harms and costs, since there were no clear comparative advantages for most treatments compared to one another," Damle said.

The ACP guidelines say surprisingly little about the documented risks associated with NSAIDs, such as cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems. The guidelines refer only vaguely to “moderate quality evidence” that NSAIDs have “adverse effects.”

Short-term use of opioids for low back pain was linked to increased nausea, dizziness, constipation, vomiting, somnolence and dry mouth. Interestingly, addiction and overdose were not listed as potential risks because they were not studied.

“Studies assessing opioids for the treatment of chronic low back pain did not address the risk for addiction, abuse, or overdose, although observational studies have shown a dose-dependent relationship between opioid use for chronic pain and serious harms,” the guideline states.

The ACP guidelines were released one week after Australian researchers released their own evaluation of NSAIDs in treating back pain. Their study found that NSAIDs reduced pain and disability somewhat better than a placebo, but the results were not statistically important (see “Ibuprofen No Better Than Placebo for Back Pain”).

The ACP calls itself the largest medical specialty organization in the United States. ACP members include 148,000 internal medicine physicians (internists), related sub-specialists and medical students.

The new guidelines are published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.