Low Back Pain: When Traditional Therapies are Limited, Consider Mobile Health Apps

Smartphone users share how at-home apps have helped reduce their pain and increase ability.

If you have chronic low back pain, you’ve probably tried everything from physical therapy to acupuncture. If you haven’t used a mobile health app yet, you may want to consider one.  Well over 325,000 related apps have entered the market since the arrival of smartphones, and they have had a huge impact on health and healthcare. Here, two individuals with low back pain recount their experience with mobile health (mHealth) alternatives.

Exercise is one of the best methods for strengthening and relieving pain. (Image: Kaia Health)

Kaia Health: Customized Back Pain Exercises

Lori Boyles, of Naples, Florida, who has lived with chronic back pain for more than 30 years, has tried various ways to make herself feel better. After she injured herself lifting a patient many years ago, she tried physical therapy, but making the time for sessions was difficult. Doctors told her she had a bulging disk in her back, but Lori continued to lift as required by her job as a nurse at a community hospital. She found it hard to make time to go to the gym when she got off work, and says it was difficult to get motivated. At the end of the day, Lori was just too tired to keep up with physical therapy, and the out-of-pocket costs for were higher than she could afford.

Through her employer, she heard about Kaia Health’s app, “Back Pain Relief: Exercises for a Healthy Back” and decided to give it a try. Since she started using the Kaia Health app several months ago, typically doing 20 minutes of exercise and relaxation about five days a week,

Lori has seen a huge improvement in her symptoms.

“The app takes me through four or five exercises that I do two or three times, and then there is a relaxation portion which is very helpful,” she says. “I do the exercises early in the day and the relaxation part in the evening before I go to bed.”

She likes that you can decrease or increase the level of difficulty of the exercises, and that you can email questions to a coach if you are having any issues with the app. Besides making Lori feel more fit overall, the Kaia app is making her back pain much easier to live with.  “I don’t think the pain will ever go away, but this is making it much more tolerable,” she says. “I feel more limber. I have a dog, and for the first time, I am really enjoying walking him. I like doing the exercises with the app because I can do it off my phone. My pain has gone from a 5 to a 3.”

Kaia Health Software GmbH offers “Back Pain Relief: Exercises for a Healthy Back,” which is available through mobile app libraries on iPhones, Apple watches, and iPads. It features an at-home, customizable back pain relief and exercise plan. The app was developed in conjunction with physiotherapists, pain management physicians, orthopedic surgeons, and clinical psychologists. It uses a multidisciplinary digital approach that includes education, physiotherapy (including exercises for the lower back and lateral muscles) and psychological strategies (including mindfulness and muscle relaxation). A program is created for each user from the more than 120 exercises, and motion-tracking technology (the user needs a smartphone) ensures that the user is doing the exercises correctly. A chat function can connect the user to an exercise professional for questions. Kaia can be downloaded via the App Store and Google Play with a 7-day free trial.

Take your pain management to the next level with personalized coaching. (Image: Curable)

Curable: CBT and Brain Coaching

Allison Mills, who has suffered from low back pain for more than 17 years, was diagnosed with endometriosis a year ago and underwent surgery to relieve her pain. Even after she recovered from the operation, however, she continued to have chronic low back pain.

“I learned that sometimes when we feel pain in one area, we start to feel pain in other spots, too,” says Allison, who is based in Houghton, Michigan and writes for Michigan Technological University. “After so many years of being in a state of pain, I was actually having panic attacks. I decided to go to the Mayo Clinic for help with my pain. I had basically tried everything.”

She learned about the Curable app, and soon was sitting down a few times a week to do a series of meditations and brain-training exercises. “Curable is basically a pain management coach that is like a chat bot and it leads you through meditation and brain training exercises,” Allison explains. “I have noticed a big difference in my pain. For me, a big part of my pain was acknowledging that there is a mind-body connection. The Curable app has helped with that. It has been a lifesaver.”

Now that she is in much less pain and very busy at work, Allison doesn’t always have time to use the app but she tries to use it occasionally as it has been so effective. “Pain changed my life and I may never get it to go away completely,” she says. “But with Curable, I find that it has enabled me to be a new and hopefully better version of myself.” In fact, she uses the app to help carry out recommendations such as brain training exercises, journaling, and daily meditations from her medical team at the Mayo Clinic.

John Gribbin, one of the founders and the CEO of Curable, endured 15 years of low back pain before he developed the app. Launched in 2016, the app has almost 200,000 users, most of whom use it for migraine or low back pain. The app (found at curablehealth.com) encourages users to learn cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and meditation to break out of the cycle of pain. The premium subscription can be purchased for less than $72 per year, which works out to $5.99/month.

“The brain training is designed to reduce the fear that is around pain,” says Gribbin. “Pain is a wonderful alarm system, but it can go awry and warn us of something that is not an imminent threat,” he says. “So when our central nervous system is on red alert and sensing a danger that is not actually a physical threat, we can have pain. And once the fear and expectation of that pain sets in, the person can still have the pain even though the actual tissue damage has been cleared up.”  (More on the fight or flight response in chronic pain)

The Curable offers pain education, Gribbin says. “The app empowers people to have a healthier relationship with pain and that involves helping them understand the connection between the brain and their feelings of pain. We try to provide education in a digestible way,” he says. “The entire Curable app is dedicated to helping the user learn how to have a different relationship with their pain. So in that regard, all elements of the app are ‘education.’ The pain neuroscience lessons in Curable comprise about one fifth of the total content in the app. It is among the most powerful and helpful elements for both users.”

People are encouraged to use Curable for about 20 minutes a day three times per week, Gribbin says. The app is free to download and for free, users can access much of the pain science education lessons, a variety of sample CBT and mindfulness lessons, and various inspirational stories of healing. For a premium subscription, the full catalog of lessons and exercises is available, Gribbin says.

Could a mobile health app relieve your low back pain? Have you tried another product that you would recommend? Email ppmeditorial@remedyhealthmedia.com and we can add it here. Plus, learn about other devices and gadgets for managing pain.

Updated on: 01/17/20
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Understanding Low Back Pain
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