Back pain more prominent in rural areas but care lacking, says therapist

Canadians living in rural and remote areas are 30 per cent more likely to experience chronic back pain, a physical therapist says.

People in rural, remote areas 30% more likely to experience chronic back pain: Dr. Brenna Bath

People working in the agriculture industry in particular are at a high risk of back pain, says a physical therapist. (iStock)

Canadians living in rural and remote areas are 30 per cent more likely to experience chronic back pain, a physical therapist says.

Dr. Brenna Bath, a physical therapist and assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan's school of physical therapy, says many of the patients referred to her were from rural and remote areas in Saskatchewan. In some cases, patients would drive several hours to Saskatoon to see Bath for a one-hour session.

"We were referring people back to those communities and they didn't necessarily have great access to care, especially physical therapy care," Bath told CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition​.

Up to 20 per cent of Canadians are affected by back pain with varying degrees of severity, Bath said. But reduced access to health care and living conditions may contribute to the higher percentage of people experiencing back pain in remote areas, she added.

She said people working in the agriculture industry in particular are at high risk. 

Plus, travelling to access care can be challenging, she said, such as having to leave a job for the day, driving in the winter weather, finding child care and being stuck in a vehicle for three or four hours with a sore back.

Examining back pain

Bath is now looking for potential ways access to physical therapy can be improved in under-served rural and remote areas.

"Even though it may just be a mechanical back pain as a diagnosis, it can have pretty profound life effects for people," she said.

Bath is involved in a study that collaborates with nurse practitioners in rural communities. She said the study is looking at providing care in a "different way" for people with back pain, using technology in some cases. 

In the study, one group of people accessed the level of care available to them now.

A second group saw only a physical therapist, who travelled to a community northeast of Saskatoon.

For the third group, Bath said a "teams and technology approach" was used, where physiotherapists in Saskatoon video-conferenced with a nurse practitioner in the community.

A joint assessment of patients was done between the collaborators. Research is ongoing to find out if the technological aspect is useful to care providers and beneficial to patients.

Similar methods are being employed in other remote Saskatchewan communities, such as Pelican Narrows.

Participants wanted

Bath is looking for further participants for a back pain study. Assessments are taking place in January and possibly February.

Participants are eligible if they are between the ages of 18 and 80 and have been experiencing back pain for three or more months. 

People can email with a subject line "telehealth" or call 306-966-8316.

With files from CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition