Low back pain is a common problem that affects most people at some point in their life. Identified as a major cause of adult disability in the United States, back pain can be caused by muscle strains or sprains, sudden body movements, heavy/strenuous work, injuries/accidents, poor posture, and poor body mechanics while lifting heavy objects. Many medical conditions including sciatica, arthritis, and fibromyalgia also cause low back pain. Pain management involves treating both the sensory and emotional components of pain and modalities used vary among patients based on the cause, type and intensity of the condition.
A recent study by the researchers at the University of Florida (UF) found that electric stimulation treatment or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) therapy could alleviate back pain in older adults and be an effective alternative to other treatments such as prescription pain killers. The effectiveness of the treatment in older adults depends on administering the correct dose or amplitude of electrical stimulation. The study, the results of which appeared online in the Journal of Pain, is the first to compare the response to TENS therapy across different age groups.
The basis of TENS lies in the fact the pain messages transmitted by the peripheral nervous system to the brain are electro-chemical in nature. The therapy involves administering low voltage current through leads to electrodes placed in specific locations on the patient’s skin. The low voltage electric stimulation controls the pain messages, thereby bringing about considerable pain relief.
The UF study covered 60 adults with chronic low back pain – 20 young adults aged 18-39 years, 20 middle-aged adults aged 40-56 years and 20 older adults aged 57-79 years. The groups received four sessions of TENS treatment for more than 3-4 weeks. The study found that:
- TENS was adequate for managing pain across the lifespan, independent of age.
- There were improvements in both clinical pain measures and experimental pain measures.
- There was an age difference in TENS dosage and older adults required a higher dosage to experience similar pain relief.
- Participants across all age groups experienced a 48% improvement in resting pain.
- While wearing a TENS device, participants’ pain with movement was reduced by 34% and their physical function rating increased by 14%.
Neurobiological changes that happen with aging make it more difficult for older people to inhibit pain and experience relief. The researchers claim that their findings can benefit people with chronic pain because they require many treatment options and TENS is a low-risk treatment modality.
In professional healthcare centers, TENS is an integral part of the pain management program. TENS reduces the need for pain medication and its accompanying side effects. It also reduces the need for muscle relaxants, tranquilizers and steroids as well as the need for physical and occupational therapy services. It has no known side effects, and no risks of overdose and drug interactions.
The UF researchers suggest that future work needs to compare the effectiveness of TENS to drug treatments for controlling chronic low back pain in older adults.