Meet the power couple of back pain research

2 February 2018
The drugs don't work, but video games might, say experts Paulo and Manuela Ferreira. The couple are former physiotherapists and now University of Sydney back pain researchers.

Paulo and Manuela Ferreira have more in common than most married couples. Both physiotherapists turned back pain researchers; the Brazilian-born duo have both recently been awarded the same prestigious national fellowship.

As some of Australia’s best up-and-coming medical research talent, the Ferreiras received National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Career Development Fellowships to progress their work on one of the world’s most common health conditions.

Manuela’s focus is on surgical management of low back pain, while Paulo is interested in the lifestyle factors that can be tweaked to prevent and treat back pain.

Earlier this year, Manuela led a groundbreaking study that found common anti-inflammatory drugs don’t work for back pain. She is also leading a placebo trial of surgery for spinal stenosis, new methods for post-surgery rehabilitation and whether telehealth and text message-based interventions can help manage acute lower back pain.

Paulo is currently investigating what types of physical activities cause low back pain, and along with colleagues, is looking into whether playing video games can help older people, even those in nursing homes, manage lower back pain. A 2017 SOAR Fellow, he is also investigating the role of genetics in back pain by studying twins.

Paulo says they are both interested in back pain because it is so common – affecting 80 percent of people in their lifetime, it’s the highest contributor to disability in Australia, costing an estimated $4.8 billion in 2012 – but is rarely studied.   

“Because back pain is not life-threatening, it does not receive the attention it deserves, but it is a very serious condition. It is associated with higher mortality rates, and affects people’s lives”.

“The use of technology, such as telehealth and video games, can be very helpful to manage back pain in a healthy and non-invasive manner.”

Rewind 20 years and the Ferreiras met at a University in Brazil before moving halfway across the world to start PhDs at the University of Sydney.

“When we first moved here, it was really hard. I missed my family support (nine brothers and sisters!) but giving up was not an option,” Manuela, whose father experienced chronic back pain, said.

But she persevered, having their first child while completing their PhDs.

“Paulo and I took her everywhere with us. We didn’t have any family who could help out, so we even took her when gathering data for our theses. It was a great icebreaker. Patients loved seeing her. We had the highest follow-up rates we’ve ever had because people wanted to see her again.”

Now both well-respected academics at Sydney’s Faculty of Health Sciences, Charles Perkins Centre and the Kolling Institute, with two children in high school, Manuela and Paulo concede that there are difficulties being a couple in academia. 

“Our daughters say they never want to date someone with the name ‘Grant’. They’re sick of hearing that word in our house,” Manuela says with a laugh. 

“And it can definitely take a couple of days into a holiday before we stop talking about work. But I honestly don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t an academic. I just love doing research.”

“The ultimate research goal is to establish a safer and effective management pathway for patients with low back pain in Australia and overseas. Simple care solutions that can be translated to different settings and cultures.”

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