Best treatment for chronic back pain may be hiding in your brain

AURORA, Colo. — The cure for back pain could be a case of “mind over matter.” Understanding pain signals in the brain can significantly alleviate chronic back pain, a new study explains. Two-thirds of participants reported feeling either completely pain-free or close to it after learning to interpret these pain signals as less harmful.

The study delves into the intricate relationship between the brain and pain perception. The research emphasizes the significance of understanding pain attributions — individuals’ beliefs about the root causes of their discomfort — in diminishing the severity of chronic back pain.

“Millions of people are experiencing chronic pain and many haven’t found ways to help with the pain, making it clear that something is missing in the way we’re diagnosing and treating people,” says the lead author of the study, Dr. Yoni Ashar, an Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, in a media release.

The study utilized pain reprocessing therapy (PRT), which instructs individuals to interpret pain signals to the brain as less menacing. The team aimed to determine if linking pain to mental processes via PRT could alleviate discomfort. Their primary objective was to uncover the recovery process from chronic back pain. Following PRT, participants reported a noticeable decrease in back pain.

“Our study shows that discussing pain attributions with patients and helping them understand that pain is often ‘in the brain’ can help reduce it,” says Dr. Ashar.

Runner applying acupressure for lower back pain
(© glisic_albina – stock.adobe.com)

To gauge the impact of pain attributions, over 150 adults suffering from moderate to severe chronic back pain were enlisted for a PRT trial. Astonishingly, two-thirds of those treated with PRT claimed they felt virtually no pain post-treatment. This contrasts sharply with the mere 20 percent who didn’t undergo PRT and reported similar results.

“This study is critically important because patients’ pain attributions are often inaccurate. We found that very few people believed their brains had anything to do with their pain,” says Dr. Ashar. “These results show that shifting perspectives about the brain’s role in chronic pain can allow patients to experience better results and outcomes.”

The team hopes that these findings will prompt medical professionals to discuss potential non-biomedical pain causes with their patients.

“Often, discussions with patients focus on biomedical causes of pain. The role of the brain is rarely discussed. With this research, we want to provide patients as much relief as possible by exploring different treatments, including ones that address the brain drivers of chronic pain,” concludes Dr. Ashar.

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.

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South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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