Can Meditation Help Ease Chronic Low Back Pain?

Large yoga class stretching arms out
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A new clinical trial suggests that painkillers may not be the best when it comes to lessening chronic low back pain, rather mediation may be the way to go. A program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) actually proved to be better than the standard medical care when it comes to managing low back pain, according to the study. After the course of a year, those who attended MBSR classes were shown to be more than 40 percent likely to have actual improvements in their back pain as well as daily activities.

Those who chose the painkillers had less improvement than those who did not.

What is MBSR?
MBSR itself revolves around group sessions in meditation along with some very simple poses from the exercise form known as yoga. The purpose of mindfulness is for the individual to become aware of their body and mind, as well as accepting oneself, according to a study leader. Its noteworthy that the study leader isn’t always exactly sure why the mindfulness approach seems to work. He did stress that no one has stated that the pain is just in people’s heads. Instead, he discussed how neurological research helps showcase that the body and mind are actually connected. It is very important to understand how the mind reacts to pain. He also says that MBSR is a pathway to help people realize how they feel, both physically and mentally, without overreacting, which would result in people becoming more stressed out.

Through sorting their thoughts there’s the possibility that it could help manage their back pains. We all have good thoughts and even more stressful thoughts. Mindfulness helps reduce the stressful thoughts which sometimes can be characterized as negative.

The Study

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016.

The sample size consisted of 342 adults with constant low back pain for three months or longer. Many of the participants had lived with these pains for much longer, with seven years being the average. The study did not contain any participants with a clear and absolute reason behind the pain, but that only made the sample better, since most people don’t have a clear cause for it. In these scenarios there usually isn’t a single treatment to help solve the problem, because the pain is most likely brought in from multiple factors. The team for the study assigned each patient to a group randomly. The MBSR group attended eight sessions every week led by an instructor. They would also practice mediation and yoga poses at home independently.

The second group attended cognitive behavioral therapy where they learned how to get rid of potential negative thoughts and actions. This therapy can also work mentally, but is different from meditation in the sense that the therapy’s goal is to take an active stance to actually change and get rid of the negativity from within.

The third group had the freedom to choose any treatment they wanted, which included physical therapy and pain medication.

Benefits of MBSR Lasted Longer

Within only six months, 60 percent of the patients in the MBSR group experienced improvement participating in their daily activities. Those who had the freedom to choose which therapy they wanted were at a disadvantage of about 44 percent. The group who worked with cognitive behavioral therapy did better than those with the freedom to choose as well. About 58 percent of the cognitive group showed improvements. The most surprising element was that even after a year the benefits of MBSR still held in the patients, even for the people who didn’t attend all of the sessions. At one year, the MBSR group had 69 percent of patients reporting improvements in their daily activities, while the therapy group had 59 percent and the free choice group had 49 percent. The MBSR group also had reports of improvement in pain.

Those who ran the study were surprised at how long-lasting the effects were. An assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins stated that the element of practicing at home was a pivotal part in MBSR. MBSR was created at the University of Massachusetts sometime in the 1970s. Because of how new it still is it remains unclear if local yoga centers will have the same results, according to the professor. The study leader agreed with the professor but stated that MBSR programs are actually becoming quite common. The price ranges from $400 to $500, and to some people that is a price they are willing to pay. The study may not have tested other mindfulness techniques, but some people may still give them a try if they are truly interested.

MBSR Is Not for Everyone

The study leader also stresses that MBSR is not for all people with low back pain. If a person doesn’t like to meditate, they probably won’t get much out of it. All people are different, and that means that different treatments work for different people. This study focuses solely on the idea that there could possibly be some value in offering patients treatments that focus on the mental side of individuals.


JAMA. 2016;315(12):1240-1249. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.2323.

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