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Early treatment is very important for preventing back pain and depression from creating a vicious cycle in which one condition reinforces the other, according to Professor Markus Melloh of the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research (WAIMR).

Some years ago, it was established that people with depressive symptoms run a greater risk of developing and sustaining back and neck pain. This is attributed to their weaker ability to handle an episode of pain. At the same time, it has been found that people afflicted with back and neck pain succumb to depression more often.

Working in partnership with researchers from the University of Berne in Switzerland, Professor Melloh conducted a study that sheds light on the reciprocal relationship between the two conditions. The team tracked 300 patients who visited their GP because of a new episode of back pain. The subjects were followed for a period of six weeks. After three weeks, patients who had exhibited depressive symptoms at the time of their GP visit scored higher on the back pain scale. Meanwhile, patients suffering from back pain after three weeks were more likely to be suffering from depressive symptoms after six weeks.

Professor Melloh pointed out that it was essential to prevent this vicious cycle by treating depression early and tackling back pain from the very beginning through use of pain killers. It does not necessarily mean using anti-depressants. Patients could benefit from alternative treatments, for example relaxation, biofeedback and cognitive behavioural therapy. The point is that knowledge of the back pain-depression relationship can really improve the effectiveness of patient treatment, Professor Melloh added.