Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob
Slumped on the couch? Wrong! Sit up straight. Working at an ergonomically-unfriendly desk? Don’t! Lifting a heavy crate without bending your knees? Watch out!
We’ve all heard the story: activities like these will put you on a one-way track to a bad back. Nonsense, responds professor of rehabilitation medicine Rob Smeets. “There’s no scientific evidence for any of this. So how are you supposed to lift things? Use whatever technique works best for you. And all those modifications in the workplace? They cost a truckload of money but they’ve never been proven to lead to lower rates of sick leave.”
Myths about back pain are, Smeets says, as persistent as they are plentiful. Take the recent Olympic Games in Rio where the Dutch sprinter Dafne Schippers won silver in the 200 metres. “I heard she has a coach who supposedly knocks her vertebrae back into place with a hammer and chisel. As though that were even possible: fixing something wonky in your spine by bashing it from the outside.”
The media, too, seem to uncritically swallow all sorts of “nonsense stories”. Recently he was annoyed when the NOS-Journaal at 8pm claimed that more and more young people are developing back deformities from hunching over their tablets and mobile phones. Smeets emailed the show to ask what science this was based on. The answer: “It was in other media, including the AD newspaper.” Smeets can barely contain his indignation: “If that’s what the NOS is relying on …” Meanwhile, he managed to track down the original source himself: a study asserting that the number of young people with back problems is on the rise. “A finding like that has everything to do with how you ask the question, and of whom. Sometimes I’ll ask my second-year medical students, who among you has ever had back problems? Seventy percent will put their hands up.”
Back pain is just part of life, says Smeets, and he is not immune to it himself. “I should really do more sports”, he laughs. Some ninety percent of back problems have no specific cause, such as a tumour or Bechterew's disease. “MRI scans – and a speed skater like Sven Kramer has much easier access to these than ‘normal’ people – are vastly overrated in terms of their diagnostic value. They’re really only useful in the case of paralysis. They do show up a lot of abnormalities, but also people with no back problems have that kind of deformities. And whatever you see may look different tomorrow or in a month from now; there’s a lot of movement in the spinal column. To give an example: you’re two centimetres taller in the morning than you are in the evening. A ‘bad’ result can make patients think the worst, and that in itself has a negative impact on recovery.”
There’s nothing wrong with people who have back problems taking it a bit easier than usual, but they should try to return to their usual routine as soon as possible, says Smeets. The slogan is: Back pain, don’t take it lying down. “When you’re not moving your muscles deteriorate very quickly; you lose strength and general fitness. But if you stay active you produce endomorphin, which works like a painkiller. Most people recover – only a small proportion end up with chronic back pain.”
His is no lone voice in the wilderness. Chuckling, he waves a printout of a recent article by British and Australian scientists, titled ‘14 myths about back pain debunked by experts’.
This is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths