Harvard Women's Health Watch

Study shows mind-body approaches better than pain relievers for sore backs

Research We're Watching

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in treating chronic back pain, but it requires regular visits with a psychotherapist and can be expensive. A team from the University of Washington designed a study to determine whether mindfulness stress reduction—a technique that can be learned and practiced on one's own—is as effective in relieving pain and restoring function as cognitive behavioral therapy or conventional treatment with drugs and physical therapy.

The researchers enrolled 342 people ages 50 to 70—two-thirds of whom were women—who'd had back pain for an average of more than seven years. They randomly assigned the participants to one of three equal groups: one group was taught to practice mindfulness stress reduction, the second received cognitive behavioral therapy, and the third received conventional treatment as needed.

At the end of 26 weeks, the participants completed questionnaires designed to evaluate pain and disability. Significantly higher percentages of those who had mindfulness training or cognitive behavioral therapy reported improvements in function and pain relief compared with those who had conventional therapy. However, only the mindfulness group had sustained the improvements when surveyed 26 weeks after the program ended. The study was published in the March 22/29, 2016, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.