Importance: Chronic back pain (CBP) is a leading cause of disability, and treatment is often ineffective. Approximately 85% of cases are primary CBP, for which peripheral etiology cannot be identified, and maintenance factors include fear, avoidance, and beliefs that pain indicates injury.
Objective: To test whether a psychological treatment (pain reprocessing therapy [PRT]) aiming to shift patients' beliefs about the causes and threat value of pain provides substantial and durable pain relief from primary CBP and to investigate treatment mechanisms.
Design, Setting, and Participants: This randomized clinical trial with longitudinal functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and 1-year follow-up assessment was conducted in a university research setting from November 2017 to August 2018, with 1-year follow-up completed by November 2019. Clinical and fMRI data were analyzed from January 2019 to August 2020. The study compared PRT with an open-label placebo treatment and with usual care in a community sample.
Interventions: Participants randomized to PRT participated in 1 telehealth session with a physician and 8 psychological treatment sessions over 4 weeks. Treatment aimed to help patients reconceptualize their pain as due to nondangerous brain activity rather than peripheral tissue injury, using a combination of cognitive, somatic, and exposure-based techniques. Participants randomized to placebo received an open-label subcutaneous saline injection in the back; participants randomized to usual care continued their routine, ongoing care.
Main Outcomes and Measures: One-week mean back pain intensity score (0 to 10) at posttreatment, pain beliefs, and fMRI measures of evoked pain and resting connectivity.
Results: At baseline, 151 adults (54% female; mean [SD] age, 41.1 [15.6] years) reported mean (SD) pain of low to moderate severity (mean [SD] pain intensity, 4.10 [1.26] of 10; mean [SD] disability, 23.34 [10.12] of 100) and mean (SD) pain duration of 10.0 (8.9) years. Large group differences in pain were observed at posttreatment, with a mean (SD) pain score of 1.18 (1.24) in the PRT group, 2.84 (1.64) in the placebo group, and 3.13 (1.45) in the usual care group. Hedges g was -1.14 for PRT vs placebo and -1.74 for PRT vs usual care (P < .001). Of 151 total participants, 33 of 50 participants (66%) randomized to PRT were pain-free or nearly pain-free at posttreatment (reporting a pain intensity score of 0 or 1 of 10), compared with 10 of 51 participants (20%) randomized to placebo and 5 of 50 participants (10%) randomized to usual care. Treatment effects were maintained at 1-year follow-up, with a mean (SD) pain score of 1.51 (1.59) in the PRT group, 2.79 (1.78) in the placebo group, and 3.00 (1.77) in the usual care group. Hedges g was -0.70 for PRT vs placebo (P = .001) and -1.05 for PRT vs usual care (P < .001) at 1-year follow-up. Longitudinal fMRI showed (1) reduced responses to evoked back pain in the anterior midcingulate and the anterior prefrontal cortex for PRT vs placebo; (2) reduced responses in the anterior insula for PRT vs usual care; (3) increased resting connectivity from the anterior prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula to the primary somatosensory cortex for PRT vs both control groups; and (4) increased connectivity from the anterior midcingulate to the precuneus for PRT vs usual care.
Conclusions and Relevance: Psychological treatment centered on changing patients' beliefs about the causes and threat value of pain may provide substantial and durable pain relief for people with CBP.
Trial Registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT03294148.
As an internist for many years, I find it great to see the results of a study that actually found willing participants and funding for this research. If only that were the situation in the real world, we would save time and suffering in the long run.
This is of limited interest for orthopedic surgeons. It's more related to psychological techniques.
As the authors recognize, many participants were recruited from the community and most of them were active. In fact, pain-compensation cases were excluded. Inflammatory disorders were also excluded, and mean pain intensity was moderate. To me, new approaches improving the outcomes of current treatment of chronic pain are needed and, thus, the excellent results of this study are more than welcome. For the same reason, I look forward further clinical trials with participants more similar to those typically encountered in clinical scenarios.
Beliefs that pain signifies tissue damage is a common view in patients with chronic pain (as well as medical practitioners). The fact that psychological treatment causes these beliefs to change is also well known. However, the fact that the treatment effects are also supported by hard neurological data (fMRI) is not very well known and deserves more attention and dissemination.