unhappy african american woman suffering from back pain while sitting on sofa near table with digital devices

Back pain is a constant problem for millions of people around the world. Those with the most severe pain may turn to treatments like discectomy and spinal fusion to get relief. But even those with mild and moderate pain may be encouraged to take drastic measures if the pain persists long enough. If a recently published Stanford study is correct, going to extremes may no longer be necessary.

The study was based on a long-standing belief in the connection between physical health and a person’s thoughts and emotions. For example, it has long been understood that perceptions of pain can be made worse when patients focus most of their thoughts on how they feel.

Stanford psychologist Beth Darnall took what we know about the link between mind and body and combined it with principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to develop a treatment she calls Empowered Relief.

A Different Approach to Pain

Darnall noted that CBT is already utilized to manage chronic pain. CBT is a talking therapy designed to modify a patient’s thoughts, emotions, and behavioral patterns in ways that reduce pain perceptions and increase coping ability. Unfortunately, CBT is not widely accessible. It also involves a tremendous time commitment involving several months of therapy.

By contrast, Empowered Relief involves a single 2-hour session that teaches patients the knowledge and skill they need to employ its principles. They can immediately implement what they learn with other strategies to minimize their pain.

Good Results So Far

To test her treatment, Darnall recruited 263 participants suffering from lower back pain. Most had been living with pain for at least five years; nearly half also suffered from other chronic pain conditions.

Participants were divided into three groups. The first group received standard CBT; the second group took the Empowerment Relief class; the third (control) group received standard health education that included things like pain warning signs and the mechanics of back pain.

Patients were followed for three months after their treatments. They reported their perceptions of pain intensity and whether or not pain interrupted their sleep. In the end, the Empowerment Relief group reported results just as effective as the CBT group and more effective than the control group.

Not a Replacement Therapy

Darnall says her study must now be repeated on a larger scale. She also says that Empowerment Relief is not intended to be a replacement for CBT. It also won’t replace medical treatments offered by organizations like Lone Star Pain Medicine.

Lone Star is a Weatherford, Texas clinic that treats chronic back pain through a long list of treatment options. Medial branch and lumbar sympathetic blocks are just two of their treatments. Both are injection therapies that offer relief by interrupting pain signals sent to the brain.

CBT and Empowerment Relief are not medical procedures. They are therapies designed to tap into that link between the mind and body. Proponents like Darnall believe that successfully doing so could reduce a patient’s dependence on medical intervention.

Mind Over Body

If Darnall’s results are replicated in subsequent studies, her conclusions may lead to the development of new therapies stressing mind over body. Such therapies seem to be ideal for treating pain – just because pain is such a widespread symptom in and of itself. Managing it by addressing the thoughts and emotions could actually lead to a whole new understanding of pain.

We already know that a person’s thoughts and emotions can affect how they feel on a daily basis. Now it appears that thoughts and emotions can also help better manage chronic pain.