Chronic Back Pain? Group Therapy Might Help

February 26, 2010


(Getty Images)
By Sarah Klein

FRIDAY, February 26, 2010 ( — If you have stubborn low back pain, and physical therapy, chiropractic care, or other treatments haven’t helped, there’s something else that may be worth trying: group therapy.

Group cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) appears to provide lasting results for nearly 60% of people with back pain that won’t go away on its own, according to a study published this week in the Lancet.

“Exactly how it works is hard to say, but it’s about managing your back pain better,” says study co-author Zara Hansen, a physiotherapist and cognitive behavioral therapist at the University of Warwick, in Coventry, U.K.

CBT is a type of focused therapy that emphasizes practical solutions and breaking harmful patterns of thinking and acting. Aside from teaching strategies for managing pain (such as getting regular exercise), CBT may reassure people with back pain of their ability to cope, Hansen explains.

The therapy groups “covered a range of different topics designed to target thoughts or beliefs about low back pain,” she says. “For example, identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts, relaxing, and setting goals for themselves. Essentially, [the therapy] is trying to get across the message that rest is not the way to go, to keep active, and to do things as normally as possible.”

Low back pain, one of the most common causes of disability, affects some 34 million people in the United States, according to government data. Americans spend at least $50 billion annually trying to manage, treat, and cure low-back pain, often with no long-term results.

The study looked at about 700 people in the U.K. who had sought treatment for low back pain over the previous six months. After an initial information session on how to manage back pain, roughly two-thirds of the patients were randomly assigned to receive group CBT, while the rest received no further treatment.

The CBT group had 90 minutes of therapy a week for the next six weeks. The sessions were led by a trained psychologist or another qualified health professional, and included about eight patients.

Compared to the control group, the people who received CBT reported less pain during the treatment, and also at three and six months after the therapy began. At one year, 59% of the CBT patients said they were recovered, compared to just 31% in the control group.

It is unusual for back pain treatments to provide relief for 12 months, Hansen says.

Next page: Treatment may be difficult to implement in U.S.

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