A groundbreaking study has revealed that adults with a history of low back pain who walk regularly can go nearly twice as long without experiencing a recurrence.

Globally, around 800 million people suffer from low back pain, making it a leading cause of disability and reduced quality of life. Recurrent episodes are also prevalent, with 70% of individuals who recover from an episode experiencing a recurrence within a year.

Current best practices for managing and preventing back pain recommend combining exercise with education. However, many forms of exercise are inaccessible or unaffordable due to their high cost, complexity, and need for supervision.

Macquarie University’s Spinal Pain Research Group conducted a clinical trial to determine if walking could serve as an effective, cost-effective, and accessible intervention. The trial involved 701 adults who had recently recovered from low back pain. Participants were randomly assigned to either an individualized walking program and six physiotherapist-guided education sessions over six months or a control group.

The researchers monitored the participants for one to three years, depending on when they joined the study. The results, published in The Lancet, were significant.

Professor Mark Hancock, the study’s senior author, stated that the intervention group experienced fewer activity-limiting pain occurrences and a longer average period before recurrence, with a median of 208 days compared to 112 days in the control group. He emphasized that walking is a low-cost, accessible exercise that can be done by nearly anyone, regardless of location, age, or socio-economic status. The benefits likely stem from gentle oscillatory movements, spinal structure and muscle strengthening, relaxation, stress relief, and the release of endorphins. Additionally, walking offers numerous other health benefits, such as improved cardiovascular health, bone density, weight management, and mental health.

Dr. Natasha Pocovi, the lead author, noted that the program not only extended pain-free periods but was also highly cost-effective. It improved quality of life and reduced the need for healthcare support and time off work by approximately half. She highlighted that previous exercise-based interventions often require close supervision and expensive equipment, making them less accessible. In contrast, walking can be implemented on a much larger scale.

The research team now aims to explore how this preventive approach can be integrated into the routine care of patients with recurrent low back pain.

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