Chronic back pain affects a significant portion of the population worldwide, with an estimated 39% of adults in the U.S. living with this condition. It is considered the leading cause of disability globally. While treatment options such as medication, physical therapy, and surgery are available, researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus have been exploring the effectiveness of brain-based treatments for chronic back pain.
A recent study published in the journal JAMA Network Open provides new evidence supporting the use of pain reprocessing therapy, a psychological treatment that helps individuals recognize pain signals as less threatening. The study enrolled 151 participants with chronic back pain, who either received pain reprocessing therapy or a placebo. Surprisingly, two-thirds of the participants who underwent pain reprocessing therapy reported being pain-free or nearly pain-free after the treatment, compared to only 20% of those in the placebo group.
The study also revealed a significant shift in participants’ beliefs about the causes of their pain. Before the treatment, only 10% attributed their pain to the mind or brain, but after the therapy, this percentage increased to 51%. This finding highlights the gap between individuals’ understanding of their pain and the scientific knowledge that shows the role of brain processes in chronic pain.
Dr. Yoni Ashar, the study’s first author, emphasizes that chronic back pain is always real, whether it is caused by physical issues or changes in the brain. The brain changes involved in chronic pain are reversible, and recovery from pain is possible. By helping patients understand that their pain may be driven by fear, avoidance, or brain processes rather than injury or damage, doctors can provide a more hopeful message and facilitate effective treatment.
Experts in the field, such as Dr. Jian Guan, a neurosurgeon, and Dr. Ilan Danan, a pain management specialist, emphasize the importance of addressing the mental aspect of chronic back pain. Being in the right mental space, understanding the connection between the brain and pain perception, and exploring indirect ways of managing pain can lead to improved outcomes for individuals with chronic back pain.
Overall, this study sheds light on the effectiveness of brain-based treatments for chronic back pain and highlights the need to bridge the gap between patients’ understanding of their pain and the scientific knowledge that informs treatment approaches. By addressing the psychological aspects of chronic pain and promoting a nuanced understanding of its causes, healthcare professionals can offer more comprehensive and effective care for individuals with chronic back pain.