Low back pain resources

In Search of Online Truth: Scientific Information on Low Back Pain

By: Dr Scott Hodges 

Faced with the daunting task of understanding the symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment options associated with low back pain, patients can struggle to find reliable information. Online resources can provide a wealth of data—some reliable, some not—and a bit of up-front consideration can help guide you away from the sensational and toward more reliable sources.

Given the volume of social fallout and related discussion associated with chronic pain, there is no shortage of information available on the internet. Medical professionals, of course, draw their knowledge from years of training and medical journals related to their specialties. The general public, however, typically looks for reliable information to make educated decisions in hopes of improving the quality of their day-to-day lives. 

Naturally, many of those suffering from low back pain turn first to the internet. With countless sources at our fingertips, it becomes a challenge to determine which offer reliable, factual information. Studies show that as much as 70% of the medical information published online is misleading, if not downright wrong. In the absence of consistent moderation, authors can (and do) make baseless claims in the name of commercialization, sensationalism, or both.

The easiest way to ensure trustworthiness of online sources is to select sites posting peer-reviewed information. Peer-reviewed sources are those assessed by a board of scholarly reviewers with expertise in a particular field.1 In other words, the author’s colleagues have scrutinized the publication and confirmed its validity. 

Peer reviewing delivers “…a degree of certainty about the quality of the product. It shows that someone has put in an effort and that it has been validated by a community of scholars.”2

Perhaps the most popular (and quite reliable) source is WebMD. A simple search turns up tens of thousands of results, which are easily narrowed to focus on symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, and potential complications.

The American Medical Association makes a great deal of information available through the much-respected Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, virtually all specialties offer their own respective societies/academies with peer-reviewed publications; the American Orthopaedic Association’s Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery (JBJS) is one example. Others include the Family Medicine Journals published by American Academy of Family Physicians. The general public may only have access to article abstracts, but these are still informative and are often more easily understandable.

When it comes to spine health specifically, perhaps the largest source of information is the North American Spine Society (NASS). Their SpineLine publication, produced six times annually, offers information on a range of general spine-related topics: neck and low back, deformities, degenerative conditions, and much more. The Scoliosis Research Society (SRS) has a very user-friendly search function that enables visitors to refine results by audience type (professionals versus patients).

The American Academy of Neurological Surgeons, meanwhile, brings a slightly different perspective to low back pain research. It may seem counterintuitive to learn about spinal issues from a neurological approach, but neurology includes not only cranial work but the spine as well.  Just as orthopedic and plastic surgeons each address the hands, the premise here is the same—similar work with disparate approaches.

SpineUniverse is slightly more commercialized with an approachable look-and-feel, and it is still a good source of peer-reviewed information. It offers not only expert blogs, but a broad overview of back pain topics and treatment options, including those specific to the lower back.

The Cervical Spine Research Society (CSRS) is another spine-specific site that features a searchable database of abstracts and papers presented at CSRS Annual Meetings. Unlike some other sources, CSRS publications are available to nonmembers and can offer a more easily accessible entry point to a wide range of information.

Still another category includes websites like our own. The spine surgeons and researchers with the CaymanSpine team have created a collection point for a number of factual articles, written by experts who have devoted their professional careers to not only advancing surgical frontiers, but presenting one-on-one communication with providers listed in the website.

Conducting your own research is more than just an important and empowering first step.  Studies show that well-informed patients who received their preferred treatment have better health outcomes and higher satisfaction.3 With a nominal amount of due diligence to confirm the veracity of your information, the web offers a number of helpful research sources.

With any surgical intervention, of course, it is vital to have a second opinion. We encourage you to gather as much information as you can related to your specific symptoms and the treatment options that exist. This knowledge will enable you to have informed conversations with your doctor and ultimately pursue the solution that is most appropriate for your individual circumstances.

Are you looking for an alternative to fusion?

Spinal fusion has long been one of the few options available to those suffering from persistent lower back and/or leg pain. Individuals hoping to avoid the long-term consequences of fusion, however, may now be candidates for a motion surgery procedure.  

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1 “SDSU Library.” What Is Peer Review? | SDSU Library, library.sdsu.edu/reference/news/what-does-peer-review-mean.

2 (2013) Trust and Authority in Scholarly Communications in the Light of the Digital Transition. University of Tennessee and CIBER Research Ltd. 23.

3 Sepucha KR, Atlas SJ, Chang Y, Freiberg A, Malchau H, Mangla M, Rubash H, Simmons LH1, Cha T (2018). Informed, Patient-Centered Decisions Associated with Better Health Outcomes in Orthopedics: Prospective Cohort Study. Medical Decision Making, 38(8):1018-1026.

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