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Good vibrations: Calgary researchers shake up back pain puzzle

By Stefan Dubowski

There was a time when jobs that inflicted vibrations on the body — long-haul truck driving and construction work, for instance — were considered bad for the back. But new research out of the University of Calgary suggests that certain vibrations may in fact help alleviate chronic back pain.

Funded in part by Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (a provincial government agency) and health-product provider Optima Health Solutions International Corp., researchers at the university’s Schulich School of Engineering found that mechanical vibrations can help cells and tissue regenerate in the spine, which could lead to back-pain treatments that avoid pain-killing drugs.

These are early days for the research, says Christopher Hunter, a biomedical engineer at the Schulich School of Engineering and the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that vibration-inducing careers such as construction are actually good for the back.

“It would be very difficult to make any broad conclusions like that. What our work is showing is that there are certain amplitudes and frequencies to vibration and durations of exposure that appear to have a beneficial effect at the cellular level.”

Working with bovine spines, which are similar to human spines, the researchers applied vibrations with a stylus from a Khan Kinetic Treatment (KKT) device, Optima’s prime product. They found that certain vibration frequencies, amplitudes and durations stimulated the genes in the spine responsible for structural material, such as certain kinds of collagen, Hunter says.

Patients with chronic cervical or lumbar back pain may be the main beneficiaries, he says. Practitioners would include physiotherapists, massage therapists and chiropractors.

“If we can apply vibrations to the back that might stimulate healthy maintenance of the tissues, then maybe we can slow down the progression of disk disease,” Hunter says.

Geoff Desmoulin, associate research director at Optima, said the company has been using the KKT to alleviate back pain for a number of years. But the organization wanted to know more about how the vibrations coming from the device might impact long-term back health.

“Based on our patient base we found over 40 per cent had disk degeneration,” Desmoulin says. Since so many had disk degeneration, the researchers decided to look into how the vibrations might slow or reverse the degeneration.

The research Hunter and Desmoulin undertook suggests Optima is on the right track. “What we’ve shown so far is we’re at least turning on the right genes,” Desmoulin says. “It’s the first step in the right direction.”

The research is far from over. Next, the researchers need to look into how the vibrations travel through muscle and bone. Desmoulin says that once the treatment works for the spine, “you want to maintain what’s going on there. You do that by regenerating the tissue around the spine. That includes the disk... the ligaments, the tendons — each one will react differently to each protocol (i.e., vibration frequency, amplitude and duration), so you have to tune the protocol to each tissue you’re treating.”

Dr. Annette Bourdon is a chiropractor practicing in Montreal. Although she didn’t have the opportunity to review Hunter’s and Desmoulin’s research, she points out that certain types of work invite back pain.

“Any job where there’s lifting or bending; long hours sitting — so even a lot of your white collar or administrative people, if they’re sitting for long hours, not taking breaks, not stretching, and not necessarily sitting at an ergonomic desk; long hours on their feet — construction workers, nurses, personal home care attendants who have to be lifting and transferring patients; people working on assembly lines, warehouses, truck drivers, delivery people — even people delivering for grocery stores and restaurants — those would be at the top of my list.”

Speaking about chiropractic research in general, Bourdon says chiropractors are learning a lot these days.

“We’re learning a lot more about the importance of the disk, and things we can do to keep our disks healthy throughout our lifetimes,” she says. “We’re even researching ways that the disk tissue that has been damaged — someone who’s had a herniated disk or injured a disk severely — we can actually start regenerating some of those damaged tissues.”

Asked about the applicability of this new research to the occupational health and safety field, Hunter says these are early days, but in time, the information could help health and safety professionals understand the effects of vibrations on back pain.

“I do believe that there’s a hidden aspect to vibrations that we haven’t fully understood and explored,” he says. “Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s there was a large body of research done that suggested people who were exposed to chronic vibration had increased incidents of back pain. Then in the ‘80s there were additional epidemiological studies that called those into question. So by the ‘90s, we were sort of in this neutral state where we weren’t sure what was going on. People would start to ignore it because it turned into such a mess.

“My feeling is that we’ve lumped vibrations into a yes-no situation,” Hunter says. “I don’t think that does justice.”

He says it will take time to figure out which vibrations help, and which vibrations harm back health. “I do believe there’s something there. We just don’t have the scientific data to back it up and validate it yet.”


Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You can reach him via

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