A Reappraisal of the Deconditioning Hypothesis in Low Back Pain: Evidence from a Triumvirate of Research Methods on Specific Lumbar Extensor Deconditioning

James Steele, Stewart Bruce-Low, Dave Smith

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    ‘Disuse’ and ‘Deconditioning’ in relation to low back pain (LBP) are terms often used interchangeably. Discussions of ‘disuse’ refer to general physical inactivity, which evidence suggests does not differ between symptomatic and asymptomatic persons. ‘Deconditioning’ refers to a decrease in function, commonly both cardiovascular/aerobic fitness and muscular strength/endurance, again noting little difference. However, examination of decreased function relating specifically to lumbar extensor musculature deconditioning has yet to be examined, corroborating all possible methods. Thus, this review attempts to reappraise the deconditioning hypothesis in LBP, specifically considering lumbar extensor deconditioning.

    A literature review was conducted examining both cross-sectional and prospective data on specific lumbar extensor deconditioning and LBP. A narrative approach and ‘snowballing’ style literature search was used involving initial use of PubMed and Google Scholar databases searching up to December 2012. Included were studies utilizing the following three research methods, allowing specific induction of the role of such deconditioning; (1) strength/endurance testing of the isolated lumbar extensor musculature, (2) imaging and histochemical examination of the lumbar extensor musculature, and (3) fatigue testing of the lumbar extensor musculature using electromyography.

    Despite issues interpreting individual studies due to methods, the majority of evidence suggests LBP is associated with decreased strength/endurance, atrophy, and excessive fatigability of the lumbar extensors. Prospective studies also suggest lumbar extensor deconditioning may be a common risk factor predicting acute low back injury and LBP.

    The hypothesis of specific lumbar extensor deconditioning as being a causal factor in LBP is presently well supported. It is by no means the only causative factor and further research should more rigorously test this hypothesis addressing the methodological issues highlighted regarding previous studies. However, its role suggests specific exercise may be a worthwhile preventative and rehabilitative approach.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)865-911
    JournalCurrent Medical Research and Opinion
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


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