Researchers at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan have developed a device that can diagnose and help to correct postural instability leading to back pain. The technique involves using vibration to stimulate sensory receptors that help the brain to perceive the position of the body in space, which is known as proprioception. The approach is based on the hypothesis that poor proprioception leads to postural instability and subsequent lower back pain.
Lower back pain is a very common affliction, particularly among older people, and can often seem unavoidable. The pain can be caused by postural instability, which refers to a lack of balance and a tendency to be unstable when standing. Poor proprioception, otherwise known as a poor ability to sense the position of the body in space, can underlie postural instability. Therefore, these researchers hypothesized that identifying where and how this was occurring in the body, and mechanically stimulating the regions involved, could help.
Proprioception uses sensory receptors that sense movement and position, known as “proprioceptors”. This new approach is based on providing vibratory stimulation to poorly performing proprioceptors to enhance their function. So far, the researchers have tested the technique in six elderly patients with lower back pain.
Over a 3-month period, the patients wore a series of vibrators at various locations on their trunk and legs while standing on a balance board. While assessing balance, the researchers varied the vibratory stimulation in terms of frequency and time. Half of the patients demonstrated an improvement in their proprioception after the study, and specifically responded to higher frequencies of vibration. The results suggest that the technology could help to alleviate back pain, but the research is still at an early stage.
Interestingly, the Japanese team believes that the device could also help to diagnose poorly functioning proprioceptors, which could lead to targeted therapy. They are now planning a larger trial to investigate the full potential of their technology.
“The clinical trial is scheduled to start in April this year and will be conducted for the next three years,” said Yoshifumi Morita, a researcher involved in the study, via a Nagoya Institute of Technology announcement. “We plan to verify whether the improved proprioceptive sensation can be maintained for a long time, thus relieving elderly people of low back pain.”