inSCIde the spotlight: Professor Lotte Janssens Oct 16, 2018
Prof. dr. Lotte JANSSENS
Low back pain, a worldwide phenomenon on the rise and the leading cause of years lost to disability. Almost everyone will suffer from low back pain at some point in their life, regardless of their age. Yet despite its staggering prevalence, its cause often remains shrouded in mystery. Today on ‘World Spine Day’ we ask ourselves the question: What is low back pain? What do we know about its origin? And will we ever be able to prevent its devastating impact on society?
THIS IS NOT THE DISEASE YOU ARE LOOKING FOR
“You’re only as old as your spine” – Joseph Pilates.
Every year new professors start their academic journey at Hasselt University. In ‘inSCIde the Spotlight’ we want to showcase their hopes, dreams and especially research to the world. Today on ‘World Spine Day’ we aim our inSCIght spotlight at Professor Lotte Janssens.
Low back pain is a symptom, not a disease, which can result from several (un)known abnormalities or diseases. It is defined as pain originating between the lower rib margins and the buttock creases. Sometimes it can also be accompanied by pain in one or both legs and neurological symptoms in the lower limbs.
“To this day we can rarely identify a specific cause for low back pain, except in a small proportion of people with conditions like spinal malformation, malignant disease or spinal injury. Therefore, it is termed as ‘non-specific’. Given over half a billion people suffer from it and it’s only getting worse due to the ageing and increasing world population, more research is definitely required.”
LOW BACK PAIN FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE
With her new research group, Prof. Janssens is trying to identify the underlying mechanisms that give rise to, maintain, and cause the relapse of low back pain in order to develop more effective rehabilitation treatment strategies.
“We do this by approaching low back pain as being multifactorial in origin. Keeping the biopsychosocial model in mind, we look at the relationship between the psychological as well as mechanical aspects rather than only at the latter one. Low back pain can be caused by a wide range of psychological, social and biophysical factors. By taking into account all dimensions we can develop new treatment strategies and avoid the misuse of scans, spinal surgery and needless medication like opioids.”
In order to study low back pain, she evaluates the patients using a variety of techniques. First of all, their ability to control posture is monitored using a force plate, providing an indication of their balance and neuromuscular control. These measures are combined with electromyography of the diaphragm and back muscles to determine specific muscle activation patterns. Finally, the patients have to fill in a psychosocial evaluation form to get insight into their fear of movement, fear avoidance beliefs and need for controllability.
“With the obtained results we try to unravel the mysteries of low back pain and develop a tailored proof-of-concept therapy.”
BECOMING A WAY OF LIFE
Still much remains to be discovered when it comes to low back pain. “Currently we are investigating the relationship between low back pain and breathing problems. Research has shown that people who suffer from low back pain showcase a higher incidence of diseases like asthma, bronchitis, hyperventilation, etc. Therefore, we are taking a closer look at hyperventilation, which occurs in 1 out of 3 patients. Is it caused by a dysfunctional diaphragm muscle or is it psychosocial in nature? We would like to find out.”
“However, another important aspect and one of the greatest challenges within our field is to transform our findings into a way of life. The patients need to get the right insight into their problem, in order to believe in the validity of the therapy regime. Only then will they implement new habits on a daily basis. I hope to contribute to this endeavor by educating and communicating about our research findings in the future and get rid of all the misconceptions that exist. In the end, I would like to give hope to those that are the victim of low back pain.”
The project is supported by the Rehabilitation Research Center of UHasselt. Charlotte Amerijckx prepares her Ph.D. in view of this project “Hyperventilation in recurrent non-specific low back pain” under the supervision of Prof. Lotte Janssens and Prof. Katleen Bogaerts (UHasselt). The project is executed in collaboration with Prof. Simon Brumagne (Research Group for Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, KU Leuven) and Prof. Daniel Langer (Research Group for Rehabilitation in Internal Disorders, KU Leuven).