Oops I opened a can of worms!

Yesterday's blog on research in sports got an interesting response, from nodding agreement to being told it was “utter crap!”

The critics said I was talking up the “personal anecdote” and that without research we can't know about “causal inference” i.e. what really has created the change we observe. Two good points, to be fair.

I've given it some thought and I stand by what I said, research is part of the reasoning process and not all of it.

In an ideal world we'd have conclusive research that had reached consensus on what treatments are most effective. We'd draw on that research and have truly evidence based practice. In reality there are few areas where such consensus exists. You've seen with my recent post on glucosamine and chondroitin, there are studies for and against and you take them all in to your reasoning process.

In time maybe a consensus will be reached on more topics. Only fairly recently have we reached agreement on the things we're actually treating. We've discovered that there may not be inflammation involve in tendonopathy, that ITB friction syndrome may not even involve any friction and that we can't diagnose around 85% of low back pain! How can we approach consensus on treating these areas when we aren't really sure about the underlying problem?

I had an interesting discussion with @NeilOConnell about this on Twitter. Some areas we have a consensus, an agreement on best practice, such as early management of low back pain – we know it's best to stay active and avoid prolonged bed rest. The same may be true for tendonopathy – a graded eccentric loading programme is generally considered a sensible approach. In some areas though we appear to be a long way from agreement. Look at these two papers on resistance training; The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) have produced recommendations based on over 200 research papers, despite this their findings were heavily ciriticised. Even if we use the ACSM's guidance, it's based mainly on healthy individuals, can we use that for those with injuries? So what do we do then? This was part of my point yesterday, in many areas the guidance from the research is unclear and we have to use it with clinical reasoning and experience.

Another issue here is biology isn't everything. In recent years we've realised that biological changes aren't always consistent with symptoms. Around 50% of people have a disc bulge on MRI without symptoms. X-ray changes with arthritis in the knee match very poorly with pain. We've developed a biopsychosocial model to help us see that the way a patient thinks, feels and behaves affects their symptoms and that work, lifestyle, relationships etc all play a huge part. Some research is based in this field, but a lot of research is based more in a simplistic medical model – diagnosis + treatment = outcome. There are some amazing studies on Psychoneuroimmunology – how stress, mood and how we think actually directly affects healing. We know that beliefs play a big part too, especially in pain. It's not easy to assess these factors and include them in research but we know they can play a part. This all comes back to my points yesterday on assessing each individual and seeing how complex the decision making process is and using guidance from the literature where possible.

I'm glad to see I'm not alone in thinking this, fellow sports physio @AdamMeakins has written about it today. I must also give him a great deal of credit for sending me this article by Hanson et al. 2012 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine which neatly sums up what I'm trying to say.

They comment on the complexity of the situation and how people's “natural, physical and social environment” influence each other leading to poor translation from research to practice, taking a quote from Green (2001),

“Where did the field get the idea that evidence of an intervention's efficacy from carefully controlled trials could be generalised as best practice for widely varied populations and situations?”

They talk about the importance of expertise, acknowledging the role of experience,

“However, there is also a need for better translation of evidence from practice into research…perhaps the real barrier is not lack of understanding, but a failure to listen! Good communication, good translation and indeed good research are necessarily a dialogue, a multidirectional conversation in which everyone's contribution is valued. If we could find the humility to listen we might be surprised to discover that policy makers, practitioners and the sporting community have valuable expertise that can enhance our research by making it more relevant, more practical and more applicable in the real world”

According to my stats I've seen over 5000 patients in a career spanning 10 years and multiple Physio departments both in the uk and abroad. Should this stand for nothing in my decision making process?

Hanson et al. 2012 conclude with this,

“Injury prevention research that does not connect with the practical realities of implementation and adoption, and does not build the consensus needed to ensure effective implementation, will not prevent injury or improve health”

So here I am, squishing the lid back on my open can of worms…my final point comes back to my point yesterday, I am not saying we can ignore research. I acknowledge it has a vital role but it is part of the reasoning process not all of it.

From Hanson et al. 2012

When I get some time I will try and reference some articles talking about things like is there friction in ITB syndrome and diagnosis of LBP…just haven't had the time yet today!…

 

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Research isn’t everything…

BBC's Panorama this week exposed the paucity of evidence behind some of the products involved in sports. I have to say, overall, I wasn't impressed with the programme – they had an agenda and fought to find evidence to suggest these products didn't work. A more balanced view would have been more helpful but it does raise a broader question on sports and rehab, “is anything backed up by research evidence?”

Let's look at some thoughts from the research on common sports practices and treatments;

Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (PRICE) has been central to acute soft tissue injury management for many years despite a paucity of high-quality, empirical evidence to support the various components or as a collective treatment package.” Bleakley, Glasgow and MacAuley 2012

“While studies of strength, biomechanics, stretching, warm-up, nutrition, shoes, and psychological factors all raise intriguing questions about both the etiology and the prevention of running injuries, strong evidence that modifying any of these will prevent running injury requires further research.” Fields et al 2010

“The prescription of PECH running shoes (shoes with elevated cushioned heels and pronation control features tailored to foot type) is considered best practice when prescribing shoes to distance runners. However, the findings of biomechanical and epidemiological studies continue to call into question the efficacy and safety of this approach…..This systematic review found that PECH running shoes have never been tested in controlled clinical trials. Their effect on running injury rates, enjoyment, performance, osteoarthritis risk, physical activity levels and overall athlete health and wellbeing remain unknown. The prescription of this shoe type to distance runners is not evidence based.” Richards, Magin and Callister 2008

Core stability exercises are no more effective than, and will not prevent injury more than, any other forms of exercise or physical therapy.” Lederman 2008

“In conclusion, there was little quality evidence to support the use of KT (Kinesio Taping) over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries” Williams et al. 2012

So we shouldn't use ice, stretching, warm-up, running shoes, core stability or kinesio tape? Should we just stop everything?

There's more, I could go on and on (like usual!) but I've made my point…there is a surprising lack of evidence behind much of what we do, is it fair of the BBC to pick on just those things recommended by big sports companies? Also worth pointing out that for every opinion, like those above, there will be another piece of research saying the something different.

Research is part of our reasoning process, not the entirety of it. Experience and individual circumstances make up much of our decision making process. So ice may not have great research but I've seen it work for hundreds of people so I will continue to recommend it. Warm-up may not have concrete evidence to show it reduces injury risk but I feel a whole lot more comfortable running if I've warmed up properly so I'll keep doing it. The literature on running shoes might be inconclusive but when a patient presents with plantar fasciitis and can't even walk barefoot I won't be telling them to run barefoot! The shoes vs barefoot running is a huge topic for discussion and one Panorama really failed to cover fairly.

Panorama told us that an isotonic drink is no better than a jam sandwich! One of my favourite tweets last night was this by @sportprofbrewer;

 

Research itself is a limited tool. You have to ask how does it repeatedly fail to show that treatments work when we see them doing so again and again with our patients? Literature also fails to simulate the way physiotherapy works. We assess, form a diagnosis and identify key problem areas (like weakness, stiffness, poor control etc.). Our treatment is based on this and the individuals circumstances – level of pain, other medical conditions, work situation etc etc. Research, by comparison, often uses an intervention to treat a specific diagnosis. For example are quads strengthening exercises effective for patellofemoral pain? They probably will be for those with weak quads, probably not for those with weak glutes or a tight ITB or any of the other potential causes. What happens is a “washing out” effect whereby some of the patients get better but not enough to reach a “statistical significance” and they conclude “quads strengthening may improve patellofemoral pain but more research is required…”

There is of course, no doubt that research has it's role in our decision making process and there is some fantastic work being done but we need to acknowledge its limitations. Your experience and what works for you is as important, if not more so.

The BBC raised some useful points and it's important to question a manufacturers claims, which, to be fair to them was the aim of their programme. But when it comes to sports practices, products and treatments there is a much bigger decision making process than just using research. So you can retrieve your expensive trainers from the bin. Stop pouring your performance drinks down the sink and put your ice pack back in the freezer before it defrosts – it's not all as useless as the literature might have you believe!