A new approach to chronic back pain

The statistics about back pain are truly staggering. Around eight in ten of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives.

It is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and the second most common cause of missed days at work. Around one in six people suffer with back pain at any one time and costs around $1.2 billion of the total health-care expenditure each year.

Regular exercise, keeping weight under control and thinking about our posture at work are some of the key things we can do to ward off problems. When back pain strikes, physiotherapy and painkillers can often help. However, for some, back pain becomes a chronic problem which can result in changes in activity levels, depression, or even difficulty in holding down a job. Treating chronic back pain can be extremely challenging, with many patients finding that nothing really improves their symptoms. Trying to avoid becoming hooked on regular painkillers often becomes a priority.

Any new approach to this difficult problem should be welcomed. A recent study from King’s College in London has taken an innovative direction. They asked a group of patients attending their chronic pain clinic with back pain to undertake a specialised form of cognitive behavioural therapy. This psychological treatment avoids the use of drugs or medicines, instead focusing on how the patient perceives their pain and deals with it on a day-to-day basis. Following treatment, they found that most patients reported less pain, and – crucially – improved function; meaning they were better able to go about their normal lives. Even more impressively, the improvements were still observed nine months after the end of treatment.

Avoiding back pain in the first place is obviously the best possible situation. When it strikes, conventional approaches to pain relief and identifying causes will continue to be the mainstay of treatment. However, for those unfortunate patients for whom chronic back pain becomes a day to day reality, perhaps this new approach might offer some relief.

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