Chronic Pain: How a Trial Helped People Retrain Their Brain to ‘Unlearn’ a Bad Back

The article starts by relating the experiences of a Brazilian DJ who spent 15 years dealing with chronic back pain. He said that the problem was caused by the combination of bad posture, riding his motorcycle and hauling heavy equipment. For a decade and a half, he had seen a number of doctors and specialists to try to eliminate or at least reduce the regular pain. At its worst, the pain was intense enough to have him hospitalized. The initial success of new approaches worked temporarily until 2019 when he followed a new program designed by Australian researchers and with trials recently published in Journal of the American Medical Association.

Chronic pain is any pain that lasts for at least three months, and it is a problem that is common across the globe. Since it is one of the leading causes of lost productivity and costs for healthcare. It starts with an acute pain, or a sharp pain that strains the back. Over time, the pain may become less severe, but constant. Over an extended period of time, sensations in that area may become interpreted by the mind as being pain, even if the back muscles are just moving. The article compares it to a very hypersensitive alarm. Some estimates have up to 90% of chronic back pain not being actual pain, but the hypersensitive reaction  from nerves that expect sensations to be pain.

Even when the problem is pain, it is very difficult to treat it in a person’s back. Surgery isn’t always successful, with many operations causing new problems. Most medications, particularly opioids, cause a wealth of other problems on their own, with addiction being a significant deterrent to using them. This is why so many medical researchers have been looking for new options with more reliable success rates and less likelihood of causing new problems.

The Australian researchers developed a set of 12 in person sessions with either an exercise or physiotherapist over as long as three or four months. The patient is taught about pain, and then is given exercises that should help relieve the sensations. The researchers have looked over images of people reporting chronic back pain against people with no back pain and seen very little difference. They have often interpreted this to mean that the pain is more in the person’s mind than the presence of actual pain. For these patients, they have been taught a process for actually stopping and considering whether or not the sensations are pain. It is a process to help the patient start to reconnect their mind with their back in a way that doesn’t automatically interpret sensations as pain when most of the time it isn’t pain. It is a way of re assessing the signaling process. Many of the people who were a part of the retraining reported improvements compared to those who were a part of the control group and were not restrained.

The research was conducted over a small group of 276 people. This means that there is still a long way to go, and not everyone will likely be able to accept that the brain is misunderstanding the signal. 

If you experience chronic back pain and think this could help, you can read more about it at Chronic Pain: How a Trial Helped People Retrain Their Brain to ‘Unlearn’ a Bad Back. While it is still in the early phases, it is worth looking into a new possible solution that doesn’t have the kinds of drawbacks associated with the typical treatments.

*O’Connell and Associates provides this article for informational purposes only.

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