Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Filter by Categories
A Case Report
A Dedication
About Our Fellows
About Ourselves
About Professor Js Bajaj
Abstract Article
Abstracts From Papers
Aero Medical Society
Aeromedical Assessment
Aeromedical Decision Making
Aeromedical Evaluation
Aerospace Medicine Quiz
Aircraft Accident Report
Aviation Physiology
Book Review
Book Reviews
Case Report
Case Reports
Case Series
Case Study
Civil Aerospace Medicine
Civil Aviation Medicine
Clinical Aerospace Medicine
Clinical Aviation Medicine
Clinical Information
Clinical Medicine
Clinical Series
Concept Paper
Contemporary Issue
Contemporary issues
Cumulative Index
Current Issue
Director General Armed Forces Medical Services
Exploring Space
Field Experience
Field Report
Field Study
Field Survey
Field Trials
Flight Trials
Guest Editorial
Guest Lecture
In Memoriam
Inaugural Address
Internet For The "Internaut"
Journal Scan
Know your President
Letter to Editor
Letter to the Editor
Letters to the Editor
Message From Our Patron
Methods in Aerospace Medicine
Methods in Medicine
News Of The Members
Notice To Contributors
Om Satya Mehra Award 1997
Orginal Article
Original Article
Original Article (Field Study)
Original Research
Our New President
Presidential Address
Questionnaire Study
Retrospective Study
Review Article
Short Article
Short Communication
Short Note
Society Calender
Society News
Teaching File
Teaching Series
Technical Communication
Technical Note
The Aviation Medicine Quiz
The Fellowship
Welcome Address
View/Download PDF

Translate this page into:

Teaching Series
57 (
); 66-71

Backahe - A Psychiatrist's Perspective

Classified Specialist (Psychiatry) Department of Psychiatry, Command Hospital (Air Force) Bangalore, PO Agram Bangalore-560007
Classified Specialist (Psychiatry) Department of Psychiatry, Command Hospital (Air Force) Bangalore, PO Agram Bangalore-560007
Medical Officer, 1 Armd Bde c/0 56 APO


Backache is a common medical problem which physicians encounter and it causes significantly high costs in terms of loss of work force, health care and curtailment of physical activities. The same is also seen in the pilot population, especially helicopter pilots. Aviators with backache are not able to fly, and some have been grounded for an extended period of time which is a cause of concern to us. The implications of having a trained pilot on ground are enormous. In many the cause of the backache is left unaddressed when there is no collaborative physical evidence to account for the symptoms. As the number and complexity of the investigations increase, there are minor aberrations that are grabbed by harried sufferer, who becomes more and more disgruntled, appalled and demoralised. Mental health interventions are avoided both due to lack of exposure, as well as the stigma associated with psychiatric referrals. Mental health interventionists have an important, but unfortunately less explored answer to this malady. The article seeks to bust some myths associated with the psychiatric modalities of treating backache that will be useful for the community of aviators. Behavioural and psychological aspects play an important role in the causation and perpetuation of back pain.


Back ache
mental health


The International Association for the study of pain (IASP) defines pain as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage [1].

Back pain is an ill-defined entity, but is generally thought to represent the symptom of pain or discomfort felt in the back or buttocks. It may be the presenting complaint for a number of different disorders. Low back pain sufferers can be divided into acute and chronic groups. IASP defines pain that persists more than 12 weeks as chronic pain [2].

Chronic pain continues longer than the temporal course of natural healing linked up with specific types of disorder associated with pain and is usually worsened by environmental or psychopathological stress factors [3]. Back pain is a widespread problem among industrialized countries. Incidence of back pain is between 60 and 80%, however, prevalence rates do not exceed 35% of the general population [4]. Aufret and Villefond determined that back pain is twice more frequent in helicopter pilots than in the general population [5].

Backache & Aviators

The physical manifestations of pain in pilots have received more attention than the mental mechanisms causing pain, and studies have concentrated largely on the somatic, rather than the psychic component of the pain and its prevention [6,7, 8].

However, De Oliveira et al. found a lack of evidence linking low back pain in helicopter pilots to poor posture in-flight and whole-body vibration [9] and only one pilot in the study showed significant correlation between vibration and spinal muscle response.

When backache assumes chronicity, it is associated with significantly high costs in terms of loss of work force, health care [10] and curtailment of physical activities. Patients suffering from chronic low backache modify or tailor their activities around the pain [11]. As the pain progresses with no relief in sight, a significant proportion of sufferers start believing that they are permanently disabled [12]. The absence of abnormal findings does not mean that there are no abnormal physical components, but simply means that the tests used to detect abnormalities did not detect a cause. This pain is often termed as ‘Psychogenic’.

Psychogenic Pain

Psychogenic pain is the pain in the absence of physical causes to explain the severity, duration or the extent of the pain. Waddell’s inappropriate signs are often present in these patients [13]. Waddell’s signs comprise a series of manoeuvres and observations that indicate that a non-organic or psychological component is present. If more than 3 of the 8 signs are found, the clinician should assess the patient with a mental health perspective. Waddell’s inappropriate signs include non-specific pain over the whole back, extreme behaviour and the loss of a positive straight leg raising test when the patient is distracted.

Pain symptoms that cannot be attributed, or at least not fully attributed, to an organic origin are more frequently and more severely experienced by patients with depression than by those without [14], as depression and pain are intimately linked. Sometimes, the two may create a vicious cycle and it may not be possible to pinpoint the causal event. In many people, depression causes unexplained physical symptoms such as back pain or headaches. This kind of pain may be the first or the only sign of depression [15]. However, because all investigators do not use the same criteria to determine the presence of depression, the exact prevalence of depression among chronic pain patients is not easy to estimate [16].

Depression, PTSD & Backache

A large number of persons suffering from low backache have comorbid depression which is linked with diminished function [17] and an insufficient response to treatment [18, 19].

Polatin et al. [20] reported that 59% of one sample of chronic pain patients demonstrated current symptoms for at least one psychiatric diagnosis, mainly major depression, substance abuse and anxiety disorders. Individuals with chronic neck or back pain are almost three times more likely to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than those with no pain [21]. The US National Comorbidity Study (using DSM-IV criteria), the 12- month prevalence of PTSD in individuals reporting chronic spinal pain was 7.3% (22). Beckham et al reported that 80% of a sample of Vietnam veterans presenting with PTSD also reported chronic pain (23)

Feelings of depression frequently accompany the pain experience [24]. Not only is pain a common somatic complaint in individuals suffering from depressive disorders [25], but according to some accounts more than 50% of clinically depressed patients report pain as a symptom [26].

Depression is about four times greater in people with chronic back pain than in the general population [27] and increases in a linear fashion with greater pain severity [28]. The combination of chronic back pain and depression was associated with greater disability than either depression or chronic back pain alone.

Aetiology of Pain & Depression

Depression and pain have a shared aetiology that involves a complex interplay between serotonin, norepinephrine, substance P, and corticotrophin releasing factor [29]. In a similar fashion, chronic stress is the link between chronic pain and depression, as the HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary Axis) axis may also be specifically involved in the aetiology of both [30]. The activation of the HPA axis by stress may cause chronically stressful conditions to present as both depression and pain.

Malfunctioning of the descending serotonergic and noradrenergic pathways allows routine sensory inputs to be interpreted as uncomfortable or even painful physical symptoms [31]. Many depressed patients complain of headache, abdominal pain, or musculoskeletal pain in the lower back, joints, and neck as well as fatigue and loss of energy. Instead of being suppressed, these sensations escape up the spinal cord and into the brain where they are interpreted as pain. This malfunction may be the reason no pathologic explanations for multiple physical symptoms turn up during medical evaluation of depressed patients.

Treatment of Psychogenic Pain

The commonly used antidepressants of the SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) class have a remission rate of 35%, but the dual-action SNRIs (Serotonin Norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) have a higher rate of remission [32].

Psychiatric interventions in patients suffering from chronic painful conditions aim at managing the pain and improving the sufferers’ functioning. It is axiomatic that reducing pain will result m better functional status of the individuals. Reduction of the feeling of disability in individuals suffering from chronic pain invariably result in success. It has been shown that the most important variable in successful treatment of low backache is the reduction of subjective feelings of disability in patients [33].

Capuron, Dantzer et al determined that medications with antidepressant effect attenuated the behavioural and neuroendocrine effects of immune activation, and thus reduced the subjective pain [34]. It has been demonstrated that antidepressant treatment causes a shift in the balance between pro- and anti- inflammatory cytokine production in the brain [35]

The relationship of chronic pain and depression has also been explained by a cognitive schema of coping beliefs and behaviours. They play an important role in the patients’ adjustment. Perpetuating the sick role play with its attendant beliefs that analgesics are necessary for recovery and the repeated queries about the sufferers’ well-being perpetuate the ailment.

A belief that the outcome can only be bad by patients that suffer from chronic pain is called ‘catastrophizing’. These patients worry excessively about possible negative consequences of events in an effort to defend against pain exacerbations. These cognitions have been found to be associated with depression [36].

Pain, therefore, is an integrated state caused by a pattern of both somatic and sensory stimulation of an individual. This is the basis of the Melzack and Wall’s “Gate Control Theory,” [37]. The feeling of pain, like depression, is both a distinct sensation and a motivation.

Depression and pain symptoms may become chronic through processes of sensitization which allow the symptoms to self-propagate, requiring less and less stimulation (perceived threat) to set them into motion. The neurochemical substrate that facilitates the sensation continues to fire in the absence of objective stimuli causes the central sensitization.

Central pain sensitization occurs as low threshold afferents that normally do not transmit pain signals become recruited through persistent central nervous system activation to transmit pain signals. This state of hyper-excitability includes the temporal summation of repetitive C fibre stimulation, amplification of the pain response, spinal neurons behaving as wide ranging dynamic cells, and the spread of pain sensitivity to non-injured areas. [38, 39, 40]

In the face of a psychosocial or physiological threat, the individual mounts a vigorous defence through the immune system, leading to high levels of circulating cytokines which can evoke both depressive symptoms and pain as part of the array of sickness behaviours designed to protect and defend the individual. The frequent co-morbidity of depression and pain arises because each symptom is a manifestation of the same homeostatic drive to conserve energy for survival. This cascade of events may be highly adaptive following an acute stressor but may become chronic and maladaptive.

Central sensitization processes sustains these illness behaviour in a positive feedback loop. With the passage of time, this loop causes depression and pain even in the absence of a precipitating threat [41].

In chronic back pain, exercise, behavioural therapy and a multi-disciplinary approach are beneficial. Painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, occupational therapy and massage are likely to be beneficial. Bed rest is unlikely to be beneficial. Facet joint injections and traction are considered unhelpful or harmful [42].

Depression is a condition with high prevalence among chronic low back pain patients. So it must not be a condition overlooked when attempting to manage pain. Chronic low back pain patients with exposure to depression in their childhood home have a decreased functional status. Depression has a very strong negative correlation to functional status, even when controlling for age and pain severity. Therefore treating a patient’s depression might have efficacious results in improving the functional status of patients. If treatment of depression and anxiety can improve functional status doctors might be able to better serve their patients without placing patients on addictive pain management regimens.

It is therefore, essential that all personnel who continue to suffer from painful conditions are evaluated by a psychiatrist.


The psychiatrist should form an integral part of the approach to a case of chronic painful conditions, especially backache. Seeking psychiatric intervention to address personal and professional stress causing problems is not easily acceptable in our cultural milieu. This requires a change in our collective consciousness to enable people suffering from a chronic and disabling symptom are relieved of their distress. Psychiatric intervention offers the large number of aviators who have not flown for years because of their backache to return to the cockpit.

The stigma associated with psychiatric referrals is a major roadblock to this. Once, however, personnel realise that a backache need not be a permanent bar to being healthy, the scenario should and will change, and the sufferers will avail the time and opportunity to get psychological assistance which will help in early recovery and prompt reflighting.


  1. International Association for the Study of Pain. In: , , eds. Classification of chronic pain: descriptions of chronic pain syndromes and definitions of pain terms (2nd ed). Seattle, Washington: IASP; .
    [Google Scholar]
  2. . Olaogun and Andreas Kopf Chronic Nonspecific back Pain in Guide to pain management in low resource settings. IASP Seattle.
    [Google Scholar]
  3. , , . The role of everyday emotion regulation on pain in hospitalized elderly: insights from a prospective within-day assessment. Pain. 2005;115:355-363.
    [Google Scholar]
  4. , , , , , . Risk Factors in Low-Back Pain: An Epidemiological Survey. J. Bone and Joint Surg. 1983;65A(2):213-18.
    [Google Scholar]
  5. , . Spinal Stresses in Flight. Physiopathology and pathology of spinal injuries in aerospace medicine. In: AGRD-AG- 250, (Eng) (2nd ed). . p. 48-53.
    [Google Scholar]
  6. . Backache in Chetak crew and suggested ergonomic improvements in aircraft seat design. Aviation Med. 1983;27:123. 10
    [Google Scholar]
  7. , . Backache in helicopter pilots. Aviation Med. 1981;25:11.
    [Google Scholar]
  8. . Backache in helicopter pilots of the Indian Navy. Ind J Aerospace Med. 1993;37:11-4. Gomez G, Mukerji M. Helicopter crew conditioning programme: Our experience. Ind J Aerospace Med 2005; 49: 11-14
    [Google Scholar]
  9. , , . Lumbar back muscle activity of helicopter pilots and whole-body vibration. J Biomech. 2001;34(10):1309-15.
    [Google Scholar]
  10. , , . Back pain in primary care: predictors of high health-care costs. Pain. 1996;65:197-204.
    [Google Scholar]
  11. . Assessment and management of acute low back pain. American Family Physician. 1999;60
    [Google Scholar]
  12. , , , , , . Care-seeking among individuals with chronic low back pain. Spine. 1995;20(3):312-7.
    [Google Scholar]
  13. , , , . Nonorganic physical signs in low-back pain. Spine. 1980;5:117-25.
    [Google Scholar]
  14. . Unexplained Pain Among Depressed Patients. . Psych Central. Retrieved on Jun 30 2013 from
    [Google Scholar]
  15. . Does depression hurt? J Clin Psychiatry. 2002;63:273-274.
    [Google Scholar]
  16. , . Chronic pain and depression: does the evidence support a relationship? Psych Bull. 1985;97(1):18-34.
    [Google Scholar]
  17. , . Chronic pain and depression: does the evidence support a relationship? Psych Bull. 1985;97(1):18-34.
    [Google Scholar]
  18. , , , . Predicting poor outcomes for back pain seen in primary care using patients’ own criteria. Spine. 1996;21:2900-2907.
    [Google Scholar]
  19. , , , et al. Pain predicts longer time to remission during treatment of recurrent depression. J Clin Psychiatry. 2005;66:591-597.
    [Google Scholar]
  20. , , , et al. Psychiatric illness and chronic low-back pain. The mind and the spine—which goes first? Spine. 1993;18:66-71.
    [Google Scholar]
  21. Mental disorders among persons with chronic back or neck pain: Results from the world mental health surveys Koen Demyttenaere, Ronny Bruffaerts, Sing Lee. Jose Posada-Villa et al Pain. 2007;129:332-342.
    [Google Scholar]
  22. , , , , , , , . A trial of an activating intervention for chronic back pain in primary care and physical therapy settings. Pain. 2005;113:323-330.
    [Google Scholar]
  23. , , , , , , . Chronic posttraumatic stress disorder and chronic pain in Vietnam combat veterans. J. Psychosom. Res. 43:379-389.
    [Google Scholar]
  24. , , , . Chronic pain associated depression: antecedent or consequence of chronic pain? A review. Clinical J Pain. 1997;13:116-137.
    [Google Scholar]
  25. . Pain in depression-depression in pain. Pain: Clin Updates. 2003;11(5):1-4.
    [Google Scholar]
  26. , , , , . Pain as a symptom in depressive disorders. II. Relationship to personality traits as assessed by means of KSP. Pain. 1983;17:377-384.
    [Google Scholar]
  27. The treatment of depression in chronic low back pain: review and recommendations. In: , , , , eds. Pain. Vol 50. . p. :5-13.
    [Google Scholar]
  28. Chronic back pain and major depression in the general Canadian population. 200454-60.
    [Google Scholar]
  29. , , . Persistent pain and depression: a biopsychosocial perspective. Biol Psychiatry. 2003;54:399-409.
    [Google Scholar]
  30. , . Chronic pain, chronic stress and depression: coincidence or consequence? J Neuroendocrinol. 2001;13:1009-1023.
    [Google Scholar]
  31. , . Textbook of Pain (4th ed). New York, NY: Churchill Livingston; .
    [Google Scholar]
  32. , , . Remission rates during treatment with venlafaxine or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Br J Psychiatry. 2001;178:234-241.
    [Google Scholar]
  33. , , . Remission rates during treatment with venlafaxine or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Br J Psychiatry. 2001;178:234-241.
    [Google Scholar]
  34. , . Cytokines and depression: the need for a new paradigm. Brain Behav Immun. 2003;17:S119-S124.
    [Google Scholar]
  35. , , . Chronic treatment with the atypical antidepressant tianeptine attenuates sickness behavior induced by peripheral but not central lipopolysaccharide and interleukin-la in the rat. Psychopharmacology. 2001;154:50-60.
    [Google Scholar]
  36. , , , . Coping with rheumatoid arthritis pain. Catastrophizing as a maladaptive strategy. Pain. 1989;37:51-56.
    [Google Scholar]
  37. , . Pain mechanisms: A new theory. Science. 1965;50:971-979.
    [Google Scholar]
  38. , , , . Dynamic receptive field plasticity in rat spinal cord dorsal horn following C-primary afferent input. Nature. 1987;325:151-153.
    [Google Scholar]
  39. . Pain arising from the nerve root and the dorsal root ganglion In: , , eds. AAQS. Rosemount, IL: AAOS; . p. 187-208.
    [Google Scholar]
  40. , , , . Central Sensitization and LTP: Do pain and memory share similar mechanisms? Trends Neurosci. 2003;26(12):696-705.
    [Google Scholar]
  41. , , , , . , ed. Department of Psychology Arizona State University P.O. Box 871104 Tempe, Arizona 85287-1104., ed. Depression and Chronic Illness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;
  42. . Standards of care for people with back pain London: Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance; .
    [Google Scholar]
Show Sections