As far as health is concerned, video games tend to receive bad press. However, in the case of chronic low back pain, they may make a positive difference to people’s lives.
Low back pain illustration gym
Chronic low back pain can be debilitating and is difficult to treat.

Over the years, the debate surrounding video games and their impact on psychological and physical health has often reached fever pitch.

Some researchers have concluded that they negatively impact certain types of cognitive performance.

Others worry that video games offer more opportunity to remain sedentary in our increasingly inactive lives.

The debate is ongoing and will, no doubt, rage on. Now, however, researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia are attempting to harness video games to assist in a specific health problem: chronic low back pain.

Back pain and video games

Low back pain has become the most disabling and costly musculoskeletal condition in the United States. Older adults are most commonly affected, and over time, the condition tends to get worse, creating a significant negative impact on an individual’s ability to move around and complete daily tasks.

A new study, published recently in the journal Physical Therapy, looked at chronic low back pain in people over the age of 55.

Specifically, the team studied the benefits of self-managed, home-based video game exercises on a Nintendo Wii-Fit-U. At this point, it is worth noting that the researchers received no funding from Nintendo.

In all, they asked 60 participants to carry out video game-guided exercises three times every week for 8 weeks; each session lasted 1 hour.

These were all carried out unsupervised and at home. Their results were compared with those of a group who carried out the same exercises but under the guidance of a physiotherapist.

The video game-aided exercises produced measurable benefits. As lead researcher Dr. Joshua Zadro explains, “[P]articipants experienced a 27 percent reduction in pain and a 23 percent increase in function from the exercises.”

Battling ‘poor compliance’

These results are important; as Dr. Zadro says, “Structured exercise programs are recommended for the management of chronic [low back pain], but there is poor compliance to unsupervised home-exercises.”

He claims, “Our study, however, had high compliance to video game exercises, with participants completing on average 85 percent of recommended sessions.”

Dr. Zadro thinks that compliance was relatively good in this study because the video game gives clear instructions, encouragement, and feedback; the interactive experience also provides participants with a score, which boosts motivation.

The scientists believe that promoting exercise for low back pain in this way could benefit a great many people.

“This home-based program has great potential as supervised physiotherapy visits can be costly, and people who live in remote or rural areas can face barriers accessing these services,” he explains.

“Older people with poor physical functioning also prefer home-based exercises as traveling to treatment facilities can be difficult.”

Given the enormous global cost of chronic low back pain, increasing an individual’s capacity to self-manage their pain, while reducing the need for therapist supervision, should be a priority.”

Senior study author Paulo Ferreira, an associate professor

Being able to do these exercises unsupervised at home would be a cost-effective and convenient solution as the video game modules are relatively cheap. The exercises could be completed at a time to suit the patient and fit easily into their schedule.

Currently, low back pain costs the U.S. more than $100 billion each year. Finding ways to minimize symptoms in the simplest possible way is therefore vital.

Also, as the U.S. population ages, the number of people with low back pain is likely to increase, so understanding how best to manage it is a pressing concern.

Dr. Zadro warns, “The global population of people over 60 years old is expected to triple by 2050, so more research on this population is extremely important.”