Dr Kieran O'Sullivan
Dr Kieran O'Sullivan
Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Dr Kieran O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy has been announced as the UL 2021 recipient of the Research Excellence and Impact Award for Early Career Researcher.
After working in clinical practice as a physiotherapist for a number of years, Dr O’Sullivan’s research focus has been to shed new light on why back pain is such an ongoing challenge. He is now ranked within the top 30 researchers (the top 0.1%) on back pain in the world, has obtained over €4 million in research funding, and has published over 150 journal articles. His research has led to the development and testing of novel solutions for the treatment of back pain. In addition, Dr O’Sullivan is the National Director of Professional Development for Physiotherapists.  

The Research Excellence and Impact Award for Early Career Researcher at UL celebrates individuals in the early stages of their research career who have made outstanding contributions in the excellence and impact of their research (beyond academia).

According to Dr O’Sullivan “the costs (personal, societal and economic) of low back pain are enormous, and the likelihood of being disabled by back pain has worsened in recent decades.

“First, hundreds of studies have shown that things like stress, worry, anxiety and low mood make us more likely to get persistent back pain. Importantly, these studies show not just that back pain causes distress, but that distressed people get more back pain.

"This is similar to how these factors are linked to headaches, cold sores and irritable bowel syndrome. In other words, being run down by things like stress and worry has a very real effect on our physical health. This is not imaginary, this is real biology.

"Secondly, when you develop back pain, your medical care can add to your existing worries. This is because we now have tests such as MRI scans which can detect things in our back that sound scary, even if they are not related to our back pain.

“There is no single correct or safe way to sit, bend or lift. For painfree people, they are likely better off not to even think about their posture. For those with back pain, many will actually feel better by ‘letting go’ of tension in their back by sitting in what might be considered ‘bad’ posture.

"Back pain should not be considered a purely ‘physical’ issue. Instead we should treat the whole human and then focus treatment on the aspects that deserve most attention for that individual which might vary for exmple for some it could be poor fitness or strength, for others it might be sleep, worries or stress.”

Dr Kieran O’Sullivan’s research is primarily supported by Health Research Board, Irish Research Council, European Commission and the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia.

Click here for in-depth podcast on Dr O’Sullivan’s research into low back pain hosted by Professor Helena Lenihan and for an RTE Brainstorm article 'Back pain: are you saying it's all in my head?'