Have you ever had an achy low back? If so, you’re not alone. 80 percent of Americans will experience pain in their low back at some point in their lives. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 25% of adults responding to a large survey said they had experienced low back pain in the past three months.
You might be tempted to reach for painkillers for relief from low back pain. Unfortunately many drugs may interact with other drugs, cause unwanted side effects, or lead to dangerous conditions like liver damage, ulcers, or gastrointestinal bleeding.
Luckily, new research has revealed a non-drug alternative to treat lower back pain – mind-body therapy. Researchers at the Group Health Research Institute set out to explore ways to treat low back pain without resorting to medication. They examined a type of mindfulness meditation called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to see how each technique affected low back pain.
Study leader Daniel Cherkin, PhD, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute, was encouraged by the results. “We’re constantly looking for new and innovative ways to help our patients,” he said in a news release. “The research suggests that training the brain to respond differently to pain signals may be more effective–and last longer–than traditional physical therapy and medication.”
MBSR and CBT are both mind-body practices. MBSR is a technique developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD that emphasizes paying attention to feelings, thoughts and reactions from moment to moment. It also encourages awareness of the body through the practice of simple yoga poses. The goal of CBT training is to change pain-related thoughts and behaviors.
342 Group Health patients aged 20 to 70 enrolled in the study. Each patient had experienced low back pain for at least three months and was unsure of the cause of their pain. Patients were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Two of the groups participated in eight weekly two-hour training sessions. One of these groups was trained in MBSR, the other in CBT. The third group received just their usual care.
Compared with the group receiving only usual care and no training, the MBSR and CBT groups were more likely to experience at least a 30% improvement in their low back pain.
“Our findings are important because they add to the growing evidence that pain and other forms of suffering involve the mind as well as the body,” Cherkin said. “Greater understanding and acceptance of the mind-body connection will provide patients and clinicians with new opportunities for improving the lives of persons with chronic back pain and other challenging conditions that are not always effectively managed with physical treatments alone.”
The research team will continue to study the effects of MBSR and CBT on low back pain. They plan to examine whether the pain-relieving effects of the therapies persist for more than a year. They will also examine whether mindfulness and CBT impact pain through similar or distinct processes.
The results of the study were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Cherkin, Daniel. “Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Usual Care on Back Pain and Functional Limitations in Adults With Chronic Low Back Pain.” JAMA. 2016; 315(12):1240-1249.
National Institutes of Health – “Low Back Pain Fact Sheet”
News release, Group Health Research Institute