Whereas the fear-avoidance model of chronic low back pain (CLBP) posits a generic avoidance of movement that is perceived as threatening, we have repeatedly shown that individuals with high fear and CLBP specifically avoid flexion of the lumbar spine. Accordingly, the authors developed a virtual dodgeball intervention designed to elicit graded increases in lumbar spine flexion while reducing expectations of fear and harm by engaging participants in a competitive game that is both entertaining and distracting. 52 participants (48% female) with CLBP and high fear of movement were recruited and randomized to either a game group (n=26) or a control group (n=26). All participants completed a pregame baseline and a follow up assessment (4-6 days later) of lumbar spine motion and expectations of pain and harm during standardized reaches to high (easier), middle, and low (hardest to reach) targets. For three consecutive days, participants in the game group completed 15 minutes of virtual dodgeball between baseline and follow up. For the standardized reaching tests, there were no significant effects of group on changes in lumbar spine flexion, expected pain, or expected harm. However, virtual dodgeball was effective at increasing lumbar flexion within and across gameplay sessions. Participants reported strong positive endorsement of the game, no increases in medication use, pain, or disability, and no adverse events. Although these findings indicate that very brief exposure to this game did not translate to significant changes outside the game environment, this was not surprising given that graded exposure therapy for fear of movement among individuals with low back pain typically last 8-12 sessions.
Given the demonstration of safety, feasibility and ability to encourage lumbar flexion within gameplay, these findings provide support for a clinical trial wherein the treatment dose is more consistent with traditional graded-exposure approaches to CLBP.