Highlighting recent research, Andrew Hamilton explains why cyclists suffering from chronic low-back pain should look inwards before blaming their bike MORE
Back pain management: the attraction of magnetism
SPB looks at some fascinating new research on the use of magnetic taping in the treatment of lower back pain
Any athlete (including the author of this article!) who has ever suffered from chronic low back pain (CLBP) understands how debilitating it can be. Indeed, data shows that CLBP is one of the main reasons for loss of physical function in otherwise healthy adults, resulting in job absenteeism and decreased quality of life(1,2). Studies reveal that 60% to 80% of the general population experiences CLBP at some point in their lifetime(3), and despite their level of fitness, athletes are no exception. Indeed, even elite cyclists show an incidence of back pain similar to the general population(4).
Costs of back pain
For athletes, the cost of CLBP is in missed training days, missed competitions, missed opportunities for selection and generally getting frustrated. An athlete may be used to training around limb injuries but a back injury is extremely debilitating. Light activity and movement is about all that can be performed when suffering from acute back pain or spasms, and even that may not be possible. To complicate matters further, doing nothing at all is not a good route to recovery from CLBP, and the continuation of normal daily activities is now recommended by medical practitioners for those patients with non-specific CLBP(5). This is preferred to bed rest, which has not been shown to have a positive effect.
In order to overcome CLBP while maintaining a degree of activity, some kind of pain relief is often recommended in the rehabilitation of patients with low-back pain, which allows patients to begin rehab exercises sooner(6). This pain relief typically involves NSAID medications such as Ibuprofen or Naproxen. However, these anti-inflammatory drugs come with their own drawbacks and side effects – see this article for an in-depth discussion on the pros and cons of NSAIDs.
Magnetism and pain
One alternative to pain medication is the use of magnets. Although considered a bit ‘leftfield’, there is in fact a good deal of research demonstrating that static magnetic fields can positively influence human tissue and result in several therapeutic effects, such as pain relief, bone regeneration, muscle regeneration, improved nerve functioning, and improvement in tissue blood flow(7-10). Historically, static magnetic field therapy has been used to control pain, but the mechanism by which it reduces pain is unclear and there are a number of theories:
- A first theory is that magnetic field placed in proximity to nerve fibers associated with pain signals changes the ‘resting membrane potential’ in these fibers, making them less likely to be ‘fired’ – ie transmit pain signals(11).
- A second theory suggests that magnetic fields promote increased blood flow through the skin, subcutaneous tissue, muscle tissue, and ligament tissues, reducing the accumulation of inflammatory compounds in the vicinity of the injured tissue(12).
- A third theory suggests that magnetic fields affect the way that ions (atoms and molecule fragments carrying an electrical charge) bind to key cells, thus controlling the release of inflammatory compounds such as cytokines(13).
Regardless of the mechanisms – all of which are plausible and consistent with our understanding of biophysics – interest in the use of magnetic materials for use in medical applications has grown hugely in recent years. In particular, the development of magnetic nanoparticles has enabled the development of a much wider range of materials with magnetic properties for use in medicine. One of these is Magnetic Tape®, which is an adhesive elastic tape that incorporates magnetic nanoparticles. These particles are arranged in a such a way that although non-magnetic in isolation, the tape creates static magnetic fields when it comes into contact with electromagnetic fields such as those generated by living beings. Unlike ordinary kinesiology tape, which can be used to influence vascularization and blood flow using various application methods, Magnetic Tape should in theory be able offer extra benefits for blood flow, and pain relief.
To put this theory to the test, a new study carried out by Spanish researchers has investigated the effect of Magnetic Tape® with magnetic nanoparticles applied to the lower lumbar area in subjects with low-back pain(14). In particular, the study, which was published in the journal ‘Sensors’ sought to discover if the Magnetic Tape had an immediate effect on pain experienced at various points along the spine, and whether blood flow to the lower limbs was increased by the Magnetic Tape.
In this study, 22 subjects with chronic low-back pain (as diagnosed by a medical doctor) and with no other health conditions were recruited. The subjects were randomized to two groups:
- Taped with Magnetic Tape
- Taped with standard Kinesio tape (no magnetic properties) as regularly used by physios
In both cases, the tape was applied horizontally relative to the spine in the region of the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebrae (see figure 1). In all cases, the tape was carefully applied so that there was 0% elongation of the tape, thus not creating any tension, both in the magnetic and standard tape application. Importantly, because pain is a very subjective measure and can be strongly affected by perceptions, the study was ‘double blinded’ meaning that neither the researchers nor the participants knew who was wearing the Magnetic Tape and who was wearing the standard Kinesio tape (the tape was applied by a third researcher).
Figure 1: Location of tape application
Left: location of tape position; right: both tapes had identical appearance apart from the magnetism in the Magnetic Tape (shown here by its ability to attract a magnetic disc).
Before and after the tape application, Doppler Ultrasound was carried out on all the subjects to measure the blood flow to the legs via the femoral artery. In addition, the ‘pain pressure threshold’ was also tested before and after tape application. In this test, the subjects lay in the prone position while increasing force was applied at various points along the lumbar and sacral spine with an algometer – an adjustable pressure-inducing device using a 1cm2 surface area. The force at which pain was eventually perceived at these points along the spine was recorded for both tapes.
Following the application of the tapes, there was a significant increase in the pain pressure threshold in the magnetic tape subjects. In other words, the Magnetic Tape subjects became less sensitive to pain and could tolerate more pressure before experiencing pain. Even better, the reduced sensitivity to pain occurred at multiple points in the lumber and sacral spine, from L1 all the way down to S4 (see figure 2). In addition to reduced pain levels, Doppler Ultrasound revealed that the subjects taped with Magnetic Tape experienced an increased blood flow to the lower limbs of between 20-40%, suggesting that the static magnetic field had significantly modified blood flow in the region.
Figure 2: Lumbar and sacral vertebrae pain measures
Compared to standard tape, the magnetic tape produced reductions in pain sensitivity in the lower spine, from L1 to S4.
The data from this study may seem surprising but are in fact consistent with that from other studies, which have found that static magnetic fields applied to the skin can significantly reduce pain(7) and improve vascular blood flow in the area(15). The obvious take home message is that the use of Magnetic Tape could well offer athletes, coaches, sports clinicians and physios a useful alternative tool to pain relief for reducing back pain so as to enable the process of rehab to begin as early as possible, without the drawbacks of pain medication. And where standard Kinesio taping is used, magnetic Kinesio tape may offer additional advantages. At the time of writing, Kinesio tape incorporating magnetic nanoparticles such as ‘Magnetic Tape®’ discussed in this study is a relatively new development, and as such is, not widely available. However, it can be purchased online in Europe – for example from these distributors:
As with all Kinesio tape, when applying tape for back pain, professional assistance is recommended in order to ensure the correct location and tension.
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