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!…