Do you suffer from lower back pain? You're in good company – at least 80% of people will suffer from lower back pain at some point in their lives. But only 10% will ever know what's causing the pain.
Research study upon research study has aimed to get to the heart of the matter, without marked success, while the total costs associated with musculoskeletal conditions soared over recent years.
Now a South African woman – who is neither a doctor nor a scientist – is suggesting that the experts have all been looking in the wrong places. According to Petro Groenewald, the problem could be as simple as the flat mattress surfaces on which we sleep.
Her solution? A foam rubber layer with an intricate built-in support system that serves to support the body at critical points, which is placed on top of a regular mattress of good quality – a lumbar body support system called KBS2000 "Klass Vaki".
System put to the test
The KBS 2000 was put to the test, with positive results. A study conducted by the University of Cape Town demonstrated that the system was effective in reducing muscle spasm and pressure in patients who suffered from lower back pain when used on a conventional mattress.
The researchers showed that, compared with a conventional mattress, resting on a KBS that is placed on top of a conventional mattress significantly reduces electrical activity of the erector spinae muscles. These muscles are the chief flexors of the vertebral column and are often at the root of lower back pain. Electrical activity is an indication of painful spasm.
When lying on a KBS, patients' heart rates and levels of discomfort were also markedly lower.
The results were published in a five-page article in the South African Medical Journal in April 1995 – a rare feat for a discovery by a novice.
And research on bedsores, conducted by the Technical University of Berlin, showed similar positive results.
How lumbar body support works
Groenewald explains that the flat sleep surface creates a suspension bridge between the hips and the shoulders. In the process, the dorsal and related muscles of the back are strained, causing them to go into spasm.
The destructive effect of the flat sleep surface is aggravated by the fact that muscles in spasm pull the spinal column out of alignment. The result is that the vertebrae, discs and nerves become involved, and a vicious pain cycle is created.
According to a study published in The Lancet medical journal, sleeping on a conventional flat surface – even a firm orthopaedic mattress – appears not only foreign to the anatomy of the human frame, but detrimental. This can lead to lower back pain, and subsequent sleeplessness, researchers say.
In comparison, a lumbar body support system works by conforming to the natural curvature of the spine, thereby supporting the lower back. By means of this mechanism, stressed muscles are supported overnight and held together, bringing about total postural realignment.
Healthy subjects also tested
Using the so-called Ergo-Check apparatus, another study was conducted to determine the pressure at points on the skin surface in healthy subjects lying on a variety of conventional mattresses, as well as to compare the effects on pressure distribution after adding the KBS.
Apart from confirming the results of the 1995 study, the study showed that the KBS significantly lowers average pressure recordings when placed on top of a flat surface.
Researchers concluded that the KBS does not cause excessive pressure at single points as do the traditional flat surfaces, and that the KBS could be used to reduce the risk of bedsores in people who are bedridden for a period of time.
A struggle for support
So, the studies are there to back Groenewald's hypothesis. "I regard the KBS as a very important weapon in the arsenal against lower back pain," says Prof Wayne Derman, Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town and Sports Physician.
But why isn't this general knowledge yet?
Groenewald believes that her invention was the spark for a new school of thought that differs from the normal medical conviction, and that this is why she is struggling to gain widespread support from the medical industry and publicity for her invention.
However, some doctors do support her - and for this she is grateful.
"I think that the KBS is indeed an invention that is ahead of its time," says Derman. "We are still missing the boat in terms of lower back pain, and there are many factors that we do not know of yet."
In the meantime, however, word of mouth is doing its thing. The KBS is currently being used by thousands of back pain sufferers in South Africa, the UK, USA, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Years of pain leads to discovery
Groenewald developed the body support system in seeking for a solution to her own battle with back pain.
Her problem started when, as a 19-year-old professional model, she overstrained her back muscles while playing golf.
Nothing helped, because the main reason for her pain - the muscles in spasm - was never properly treated. The final blow, which changed her life forever, was a myelogram (a specialised method of X-ray examination to demonstrate the spinal canal that involves injection of a radiopaque substance) for which she was allergic.
She then decided to take control of her own pain, starting with research on the flat sleep surface.
The KBS2000 Klass Vaki was born.
Now, years later, she doesn't experience pain anymore – just the consequences of the wrong treatment, she says. "I cried with joy when I woke up after the first night on my Klass Vaki, pain free for the first time in decades. I designed Klass Vaki for myself, to end my own back misery."
A case in point
Groenewald's invention is providing relief for many back pain sufferers.
A Cape Town woman, booked for a back operation which would have involved fusion of the L4/5 vertebrae in the lower lumbar region, had a panic attack the night before the operation and decided against it. Instead, the woman enquired about the Klass Vaki and managed to get hold of the locally manufactured product.
In a letter to Groenewald, the patient writes: "I immediately started using my Klass Vaki, and I gradually started going off my pain medication. Thirteen days later, I had no pain at all - even when working in my garden. Within the first week, I could sit like a normal person, I could drive my car and even bend. I haven't once taken any form of medication for my back pain during the past 10 years."
And so there are many other examples of people who can testify to the success of the lumbar body support system.
The BackCare Charity for Healthier Backs, of which Prince Charles is the patron, endorses Groenewald's invention. – (Carine van Rooyen, Health24)