Smartphone apps won’t save you from back pain, study finds

SYDNEY, Australia —  Battling back pain? Stick to old-fashioned treatments. While smartphones apps claiming to treat ailments are making it easier to never have to leave your home for help, a recent study finds it still may be best to see an actual medical professional than to turn to our mobile devices for relief.

Smartphones are resourceful devices to have at our fingertips. Health-related apps especially are growing in popularity and developers are finding ways to make our phones useful and effective tools for everything from treating mental health conditions to finding fitness regimens.

Researchers from the University of Sydney questioned the validity of using smartphone apps to treat back pain as there wasn’t much previous research on the subject matter.

Man stretching out his back
While back pain can be a frustrating and long-lasting experience for many people, a new study says turning to smartphone apps for relief isn’t a great idea.

“Treatment guidelines often recommend self-management for the symptoms of back pain, and mobile apps can represent a useful and convenient way to help people manage their own condition, however, consumers need to be aware that there is a minimal regulatory control over their content,” says lead research author Gustavo Machado in a university release.

The authors reviewed 61 apps that claim to help people manage their back problems themselves. In the Australian iTunes and Google Play stores, researchers found over 700 applications that utilize the key word of “back pain.” Though the majority of the apps used guidelines suggested by Australia’s top health officials, the quality of the information shared by developers were low, in general.

“Developers usually claim that consumers could rapidly improve their back pain symptoms by following their exercise programs. However, none of the apps have been directly tested for their effectiveness, and only very few provide the educational content and information that is key to guideline recommendations,” explains Machado.

The researchers found that many of the apps tended to provide “questionable” information that offered little benefit. Machado also notes most “lacked engaging and customisable features, and had poor visual appeal and questionable credibility.”

How can the programs be more helpful? The researchers say the app makers need to turn to experts and provide more thorough and personalized care for users.

“App developers need to work closely with healthcare professionals, researchers, and patients to ensure app content is accurate, evidence based, and engaging to improve the quality of existing apps for low back pain,” adds senior author Steven Kamper, an associate professor from the Sydney Medical School.

Interestingly, the authors noted that the app reviews and ratings tended to have little correlation to the quality of the programs. Apps that cost money to download or offered subscription-based services showed to have the highest ratings, most often.

This study’s findings were published in Best Practice & Research: Clinical Rheumatology.


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