Interview with Research Physiotherapist

July 3, 2012 - Mike Dilke

New Research Helps Back Pain Sufferers.

 Interview with Kieran O’Sullivan, Research Physiotherapist, Limerick University

Since I have been working with the Back App chair I have wondered what research is currently happening to help back sufferers. I decided that the best thing would be to ask someone who is actively involved and currently doing research work.

I picked on Kieran O’Sullivan who is a member of the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists, based at Limerick University and a well renowned back researcher.

Kieran has spent some time analysing the Back App chair with the independent eye of the professional academic. The following interview Kieran touches on this, his latest research publication and how he sees research developing in the field of back pain.

Can you explain in the language of the layman what experiments you did and what the findings were in this latest research?
Most people try to sit up straight as soon as I tell them I am a back pain specialist. Then, when asked why they don’t always sit like that, many tell me that sitting upright is too hard. So we tested whether upright sitting could be made easier by using the Back App chair. Our results demonstrated that The Back App chair makes sitting upright easier.

Does this fit in with a ‘bigger question’ that your department at Limerick University is working on?

I am involved in several projects with a particular focus on how sitting relates to back pain. This was the first of a series of studies we conducted using the Back App chair. More recently we have shown that the Back App can help reduce fatigue while carrying out office tasks such as typing.

What is the most surprising result from the work you are about to publish?

Many people would assume that sitting without a backrest would be hard. However, our work shows that using the Back App means that you sit upright more easily. This is probably because of the larger hip angle or the motion of the seat or both.

What are the big unanswered questions in the back pain field?

One of the biggest questions is what emphasis should we put on physical factors (eg long periods of sitting, poor posture or lifting etc) verses lifestyle and general health factors (eg stress, anxiety, exercise, sleep, depression etc) in our control of back pain. It is clear that addressing both sets of factors can help back pain, but it is not clear how big a part each should play.   

Are we really becoming a society of couch potatoes? 

Yes. However, even allowing for the increase in sedentary-type jobs and busy lives, there should still be enough time to get some form of aerobic exercise (using the stairs etc.) The data on the protective effects of exercise on health gets more impressive all the time! Check out -

Do you suffer from back pain?

Only a tiny bit from time to time. I had quite a lot of back pain several years ago, and probably like a lot of health care professionals with back pain, I over-analysed and over-complicated it! Now, I can manage to run marathons (slowly!) and do as much (or as little!) physical work as I want.

What chair do you sit on when working at your desk?

I have 2 offices, and I vary between using a conventional office chair with a backrest and a Back App chair.

After carrying out your latest study would you recommend the Back App?

I would not recommend any single device or chair as the solution to a broad problem like back pain. However, if someone reports back pain while sitting which is eased by standing and walking, and is comfortable when sitting without a backrest, I would recommend the Back App. 

What was on your to do list today?

I had to revise an article that I was submitting for publication this morning. Then I was scheduling some back pain patients for testing in the laboratory next week. Finally, I treated some patients this afternoon and evening.

Do you still see patients and is it important for researchers to keep their hand in?

Yes, I see patients every week. And yes, I think treating patients is important. They remind us of all the research that still need to be done to help back pain sufferers.

Other therapists I have spoken with were drawn to their profession after being treated for a related problem. Was this your experience?

Like a lot of physiotherapists, I was pretty interested in sports and came to it from that perspective. I had a few injuries that required some treatment, so that was where the initial interest came from.

Are you glad you became a physiotherapist and would you recommend youngsters to follow your path?

Yes, and yes. Of course it is not for everybody, but there is enough variety in physiotherapy that there are several different options available.

Kieran’s latest publication is ‘Can we reduce the effort of maintaining a neutral sitting posture? A Pilot Study’

It is in the journal of Manual Therapy available on

Kieran can be contacted via