PhD student and physiotherapist Edel O’Hagan is currently working on a study that investigates whether using a medication, normally used for sleep disturbances, can help people with acute back pain – that is, pain which has lasted less than three months.

Back pain researchers at NeuRA know that there is a shared relationship between sleep and pain. Typically, the higher the pain intensity the worse a person sleeps. Conversely, after a few bad nights’ sleep those with low back pain may perceive their pain to be even worse. “In this trial, we are investigating whether improving sleep has a knock-on effect of improving low back pain intensity,” explains O’Hagan.

The medication used in the study acts on a neurotransmitter called GABA, which has a number of roles in the brain, but is primarily involved in calming overexcited neurons, such as those involved in producing pain.

The procedure involves a visit to the NeuRA pain clinic where participants are reviewed by a physician and given the intervention tablets – either a sleep medication or a sugar pill. They take one tablet a night for 14 nights. Over this time participants keep a sleep diary and wear a monitor on their back to measure movements during sleep. They also fill out online questionnaires, at day one, at two and at six weeks.

“Participants don’t need to change anything they are currently doing to manage their back pain,” O’Hagan assures.

It is hoped that this research will identify a new way to stop low back pain from developing into a long-term chronic condition. This can have debilitating effects such as depression, which is by far the most common emotion to accompany chronic pain.

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