It might seem too good to be true that relief from that nagging back pain could be found in meditation and yoga. But a new study suggests this approach might be just as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy, a common technique involving relaxation and education. And both could be more effective than popping an over-the-counter pain reliever.
Researchers compared the two approaches in 229 adults between ages 20 and 70 with long-term low back pain. They assigned about half to receive eight weekly sessions of mindfulness-based stress reduction, involving meditation and yoga, and the other half to receive eight sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on helping people change the way they think about pain. Another 113 adults continued their usual care, which often involved ibuprofen and other pain meds.
The researchers found that by the end of the eight-week course, 47% of people in the mindfulness group said their back pain was less disabling, based on factors such as difficulty walking and carrying out everyday activities. A similar number of people, 52%, in the cognitive behavioral therapy group reported less disabling pain. Both groups fared better than the group that did not change treatment, of whom only 35% had experienced improvements.
"Our results confirm what has already been found for (cognitive behavioral therapy), and we went beyond that to show this other mindfulness approach was equally effective for chronic back pain," said Daniel C. Cherkin, a senior scientific investigator at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle. Cherkin is the lead author of the study, which was published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is already recommended in "some of the most thoughtfully developed and presented guidelines," Cherkin said. For example, the American College of Physicians and American Pain Society guidelines suggest that doctors consider the therapy, along with other non-drug options such as acupuncture, massage therapy and exercise therapy, for patients with chronic low back pain.