Mindfulness meditation eases chronic lower back pain, US researchers have found.
While meditation is practised to calm the mind, a new study has found that the technique of “quietening the mind” could be used by some to help alleviate pain.
Training the brain to respond differently to pain signals may be an effective pain relief tool, the authors said.
The research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, saw researchers compare mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy – a type of talk therapy – and usual care for back pain.
Researchers, from the Group Health Research Institute in the state of Washington, examined a specific kind of meditation called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
They found that MBSR, which involves training in observing, acknowledging, and accepting thoughts and feelings including pain and some simple yoga poses, led to “meaningful improvements” in patients’ pain.
They also found improvements among participants who received cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
The therapy, which has previously proven effective for back pain, can help people “reframe” how they think about pain so that they can manage it more successfully, the authors said.
The trial, involving 342 patients aged 20 to 70 with chronic back pain, saw participants divided into three groups – one group was told to continue with their usual care for their pain, such as physical therapy or medication, another group was given cognitive behavioural therapy, and the others were trained in MBSR.
Compared to the group receiving usual care, participants who received talk therapy or mindfulness training were significantly more likely to experience improvements in “functional limitations” and of how much the back pain bothered them, the researchers found.
They found that after six months, 61 per cent of patients who received MBSR and 58 per cent of those who had CBT showed improvements on their “functional limitations” compared to 44 per cent of those in the usual care group.
There were also improvements in self-reported “pain bothersomeness” with a 44 per cent improvement among the MBSR group and 45 per cent in the CBT group compared to 27 per cent in the group who continued with their usual care regimen.
The improvements noted in the MBSR group persisted when the group was followed up a year later, researchers found.
Study leader Dr Daniel Cherkin said: “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.
“We are excited about these results, because chronic low back pain is such a common problem and can be disabling and difficult to treat.”
He added: “We are not saying ‘it’s all in your mind’, rather, as recent brain research has shown, the mind and the body are intimately intertwined, including in how they sense and respond to pain.”