Using Mindfulness to Treat Back Pain

New research reveals that meditation may help ease back pain.

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Approximately 100 million adults in the United States cope with chronic pain on a daily basis—wouldn’t it be useful to have another approach beyond painkillers to manage? A new study from University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine suggests an eight-week mindfulness program could improve function and reduce pain in older adults with chronic back pain.

Researchers studied 282 older adults with limitations due to back pain. (The average age of the group was 74.) Participants were split into two groups—the control group underwent an education program, and the active meditating group received an eight-week mind-body program. Participants learned three different meditation practices: In one practice, called “self-examination,” participants lay down and focus their attention on different areas of the body without judging thoughts or sensations. Another practice gets participants to focus on their breathing while in a seated position. The third, a walking meditation, consists of a slow walking pace with attention placed on how the body feels.

Both groups met afterwards for an additional six months and followed up with researchers using questionnaires.

The result? After eight weeks, the mindfulness group improved on reports of pain and function—functional improvement wasn’t sustained, however. At the six-month mark, the mindfulness group improved the most on scores of “current and most severe pain.”

In a commentary following the study, Dr. M. Carrington Reid of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York and coauthors emphasized the need for more studies on nonpharmocologic interventions for chronic pain because of the barriers that prevent treating it with medication—such as existing illnesses that limit treatment choices and “numerous patient barriers (eg, fear or deleterious effects of medications) and physician barriers (eg, lack of training).”

If you suffer from back pain and are interested in a non-drug approach, here are the mindfulness practices that might help with back pain according to this study:

1. Self-examination: lay down and focus attention non-judgmentally on each area of the body
2. Sitting practice: focus on breathing while in a seated position
3. Walking meditation: walking at a slow pace with your attention focused on sensations in the body


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