Many people with long-term back pain have tried physical therapy and medication, to no avail. A new study suggests they might “unlearn” their discomfort in weeks — using psychological therapy.
“For a long time, we have thought that chronic pain is due primarily to problems in the body, and most treatments to date have targeted that,” Yoni Ashar, who led the study while earning his PhD in the department of psychology and neuroscience at University of Colorado Boulder says.
“This treatment is based on the premise that the brain can generate pain in the absence of injury or after an injury has healed, and that people can unlearn that pain. Our study shows it works,” Ashar adds.
According to the study results, two-thirds were pain-free or nearly pain-free after treatment. And most remained free of pain for one year.
“The magnitude and durability of pain reductions we saw are very rarely observed in chronic pain treatment trials,” Ashar notes. Opioids have only moderate and short-term relief in many trials.
About 85% of people with chronic back pain have pain for which tests can’t find a clear bodily source, such as tissue damage, the researchers share.
Misfiring neural pathways are partly to blame, according to the study. Different brain regions activate more during chronic pain than acute pain. Among chronic pain patients, certain neural networks are sensitized to overreact to even mild stimuli.
Here are two ways psychological therapy helps with chronic back pain: