Smartphone Apps Fall Short for Back Pain, Study Suggests

Back pain

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Key Takeaways

  • Smartphone apps designed to help people manage lower back pain have lackluster results, a new study finds.
  • A major part of the problem is that these apps do not deliver customized management tools for pain.
  • Using apps as a way to move more often could help mitigate these issues, experts note.

Managing a chronic condition like lower back pain can come with challenges like financial constraints, scheduling difficulties for physical therapy visits, and poor access to health care. That makes smartphone apps designed to address back pain attractive. But a recent study in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation suggests developers still have a great deal of work to do.

About the Study

Looking at 25 apps that are designed to help people with lower back issues manage their pain and improve mobility, researchers expressed a number of concerns. For instance, they found a lack of regulation around recommendations as well as poor quality information and advice.

They also noted that the apps only generalized aerobic exercises and did not customize the activity for each user's condition. Additionally, they indicated that no testing was done or available about the effectiveness of these activities.

Belinda Lange, PhD

These apps don't seem to be specifically designed with self-management support and behavior change principles.

— Belinda Lange, PhD

Another potentially problematic issue is that many developers and content creators did not have a clear, health-related background, according to study co-author Belinda Lange, PhD, in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Flinders University in Australia.

"These apps don't seem to be specifically designed with self-management support and behavior change principles," Dr. Lange says. "They are of acceptable quality, but there's a need for further development."

Making Apps Work

Although the apps assessed in the research were found to be lackluster for managing pain and functionality on their own, tools like this may be helpful as a part of a larger and more comprehensive treatment plan—particularly one tailored to your needs, according to  Neel Anand, MD, director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

"There are some simple changes that can be useful for lower back pain, including just walking every day and even getting a little movement once an hour," he says.

An app that helps with behavior changes like that could be a useful starting point. The app doesn't need to be specifically geared toward back pain, only general behavior change.

Neel Anand, MD

Basically, whatever gets you up and moving is good for your back, as long as the activity itself isn't painful.

— Neel Anand, MD

A 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that also looked at apps for the management of lower back pain noted intervention messages may be particularly helpful for behavior shifts. For example, that might be a notification that pings you once every hour to get up and move for a few minutes.

The researchers noted criteria that would be helpful for users when comparing apps, and those included customizable suggestions, alerts, and reminders. Some key elements that they suggest looking for in an app include interesting and practical information, easy-to-learn navigation, visual appeal as well as references and resources.

Some apps offer a larger regimen for back pain relief while others had follow-along exercises like yoga or stretching. When looking for an app, Dr. Anand suggests talking to your physical therapist or specialist for app suggestions. But, overall, you should look for options that promote movement.

"Basically, whatever gets you up and moving is good for your back, as long as the activity itself isn't painful," says Dr. Anand.

Emotional Health Component

Another aspect of back pain management that may be addressed to some degree with apps is stress, Dr. Anand says. Tension and anxiety can often contribute to this type of pain. In fact, a July 2021 study in Scientific Reports noted that there is a significant association between chronic low back pain and degree of stress.

Addressing stress, with an app or through another means, could be helpful for reducing pain gradually, especially if some type of movement is also involved. For instance, a pilot project detailed in the journal Pain describes 35 participants with lower-back pain who did a 12-week program in mindfulness-based stress reduction and regular physical activity.

They found that the program was highly beneficial for treating back pain even compared to standard care, and the results have potentially lasting effects. About 64% of participants reported remaining completely free of pain 6 months after the program ended.

There is a breadth of mindfulness apps on the market right now, and adding those into your everyday mix could be helpful. For many people, finding relief from chronic pain is a lifelong journey, says Dr. Anand, and it takes more than one strategy to address the condition.

What This Means For You

Although a recent study found that back-pain-specific apps were lackluster, there is some evidence that apps could help with behavior change, especially if they get you moving more often. If you struggle with chronic back pain, talk to a physical therapist or specialist for app suggestions. It also may be helpful to speak with a healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise regimens.


4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Didyk C, Lewis LK, Lange B. Availability, content and quality of commercially available smartphone applications for the self-management of low back pain: a systematic assessmentDisability and Rehabilitation. Published online October 6, 2021:1-10. doi:10.1080/09638288.2021.1979664

  2. Escriche-Escuder A, De-Torres I, Roldán-Jiménez C, et al. Assessment of the quality of mobile applications (Apps) for management of low back pain using the Mobile App Rating Scale (MARS)Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(24):9209. Published 2020 Dec 9. doi:10.3390/ijerph17249209

  3. Choi, S., Nah, S., Jang, HD. et al. Association between chronic low back pain and degree of stress: a nationwide cross-sectional studySci Rep 11, 14549 (2021). doi:10.1038/s41598-021-94001-1

  4. Donnino MW, Thompson GS, Mehta S, et al. Psychophysiologic symptom relief therapy for chronic back pain: a pilot randomized controlled trialPR9. 2021;6(3):e959. doi:10.1097/PR9.0000000000000959

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.