Study Finds Meditation Effective for Low Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

A form of meditation called mindfulness-based-stress-reduction is more effective in treating chronic low back pain than the “usual care” provided to patients, according to a new study published in JAMA. The study also found that cognitive behavioral therapy also lessened pain and improved function better than standard treatments for patients with low back pain.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a mind-body approach that focuses on increasing awareness and acceptance of moment-to-moment experiences, including physical discomfort and difficult emotions. Although MBSR is becoming more popular, few studies have been done on its effectiveness in treating low back pain.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy, in which a therapist works with a patient to reduce unhelpful thinking and behavior.

Researchers in Washington state enrolled 342 people in the study with chronic low back pain and divided them into three groups that received yoga, training and treatment with MSBR, CBT or usual care.

After 26 weeks, 61% of the patients in the MSBR group reported clinically meaningful improvement in function, compared to 58% in the CBT group and 44% of those who received usual care. Similar results were also found in pain relief.  

Participants in the MSBR and CBT groups also reported less depression and anxiety than the usual care group. 

The researchers said the results were “remarkable” because nearly half of the patients enrolled in the MSBR and CBT groups skipped several of the group sessions they were assigned to.

“In a time when opioid prescribing is on the decline I would think this would be exciting and welcome news for those of us who suffer severe, chronic pain,” said Fred Kaeser, who battled severe back pain for many years, and eventually found relief through a combination of meditation, exercise and changes in diet.

“Very encouraging to think that we are getting very close to being able to say that MBSR and CBT are empirically valid, pain-reducing, complimentary therapies to whatever medical care one might usually receive for the mitigation of pain.  The thought that one might also be able to reduce one's intake of pain medications and possibly other intrusive pain interventions by engaging in a therapy that is extremely safe with no side-effects is exceptionally encouraging,” Kaiser wrote in an email to Pain News Network.

“Hopefully, people who have previously dismissed the idea of mindfulness meditation or CBT as a valid pain reducing strategy will re-think their position and give these, as well as other promising complimentary pain reducing modalities, a try.”

Recent studies by researchers at Wake Forest University found that mindfulness meditation appears to activate parts of the brain associated with pain control.

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability. About 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lives.