Study finds psychological therapy can treat back pain

About one in six Australians suffers from back problems, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), and back pain is the second leading cause of disease burden in the country.

Of those people with back problems, pain at least moderately interfered with daily activities for around two in five people (or 38 per cent).

In fact, a recent AIHW report found that more money was spent on musculoskeletal disorders, such as osteoarthritis and back pain, than on any other disease, condition or injury in Australia.

A study has given hope to those who suffer from chronic back pain, suggesting that psychological therapy can play a significant role in reducing pain intensity.

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Scientists from the University of Colorado tested a technique called pain-reprocessing therapy and found that it significantly reduced pain intensity after treatment, and that the results were maintained for more than a year.

The results showed that 66 per cent of the participants who received four weeks of pain-reprocessing therapy were pain-free or nearly pain-free after treatment.

“For a long time we have thought that chronic pain is due primarily to problems in the body, and most treatments to date have targeted that,” said lead author Dr Yoni Ashar.

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“This treatment is based on the premise that the brain can generate pain in the absence of injury or after an injury has healed, and that people can unlearn that pain. Our study shows it works.”

According to the study authors, approximately 85 per cent of people with chronic back pain have what is called ‘primary pain’, where tests are unable to clearly identify a bodily source, such as tissue damage.

Studies have shown that misfiring neural pathways are at least partially to blame for this condition, with different brain pathways (including those associated with reward and fear) activating more during episodes of chronic pain than acute pain.

Read: Seven ways to manage pain without reaching for the painkillers

The report suggests that many patients suffering from chronic pain have sensitive neural networks that overreact to even mild stimuli.

If pain is a warning signal that something is wrong with the body, primary chronic pain, Dr Ashar said, is “like a false alarm stuck in the ‘on’ position”.

The University of Colorado team believes that pain-reprocessing therapy can silence that alarm.

“The idea is that by thinking about the pain as safe rather than threatening, patients can alter the brain networks reinforcing the pain, and neutralise it,” Dr Ashar said.

The study recruited 151 subjects who had back pain for at least six months with an intensity of at least four on a scale of zero to 10.

Those in the treatment group received education about the role of the brain in generating chronic pain to help them reappraise it and engage in movements that they had been afraid to undertake.

They also received help addressing the emotions that could exacerbate their pain.

The authors explained that just because the psychological therapy worked it did not mean that the pain was imagined.

“This isn’t suggesting that your pain is not real or that it’s ‘all in your head’,” explained Professor Tor Wager. “What it means is that if the causes are in the brain, the solutions may be there, too.”

YourLifeChoices has partnered with researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre Musculoskeletal Research Hub on ‘The Buddy Study’ – a program that aims to not only get you moving, but also to enhance the physical and mental benefits of exercise. This study is aimed at helping older people with back pain by analysing whether exercising with a buddy is better than exercising alone.

If you’re interested in finding out more, please visit the Sydney University website – and tell them the YourLifeChoices team sent you. Or you can complete the pre-screening form.

Do you suffer from chronic back pain? Would you consider a psychological treatment over a pharmaceutical treatment to try to reduce your pain intensity? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Ben



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