Mindfulness Meditation May Help with Lower Back Pain

iStock / iStock

Meditation practitioners have been saying for ages that practicing mindfulness can help relieve pain. The problem is that when you’re in pain, it can be very, very hard to relax. But in a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers say it may be worth the effort. Many participants in the researchers’ clinical trial found that mindfulness meditation helped alleviate their lower back pain.

Let’s make one thing clear right now. Meditation is not a cure for pain or disease. It is a way of relating to the body that can help relieve symptoms for some people, but it cannot magic away injury or illness. Chronic pain and illness are chronic for a reason: There is no current cure for the conditions behind them. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s continue.

There are many types of meditation, each with its own outlook and proponents. One of the most popular meditation practices in the U.S. during the past few decades is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Unlike other forms of meditation derived from ancient Eastern religious traditions, MBSR was developed in 1979 by a doctor specifically to help deal with stress. The program combines elements of mindfulness meditation and yoga, and has become a popular tool among medical practitioners, corporate HR programs, and even professional athletes.

Although meditation is popular for all the reasons mentioned above, Western medical practitioners have been slow to accept it as a legitimate form of treatment. These days, however, as report after report produces quantified evidence of meditation’s benefits, it’s getting harder to ignore.

Take this most recent study, a clinical trial involving 342 adults between the ages of 20 and 70. (Previous studies had tested how mindfulness affected pain in older adults, but never those in the 20–70 range.) At the time of enrollment, all of the participants had been experiencing lower back pain for at least three months.

The researchers wanted to know how mindfulness stacked up against other treatments, including a form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The participants were divided into three groups, and each person was randomly assigned to a treatment protocol. Groups one and two were enrolled in eight weekly group sessions of either MBSR or CBT and were instructed to continue whatever they were already doing for their back pain. The third group, the control group, just kept doing what they were doing without any additional treatment.

Sure enough, mindfulness made a dent in participants’ pain. One month, two months, six months, and even one year after enrolling in the study, participants practicing mindfulness said they found a significant improvement in their pain—at least 30 percent.

Now, before you start stampeding to the meditation hall, we should mention that CBT was just as effective as meditation. But doctors already knew that CBT can help people manage, and therefore reduce, their pain. The news here is that meditation was just as good. Six months after the study started, 60.5 percent of participants in the MBSR group were still reporting improvements, as were 57.7 percent of the CBT group. The same was true for only 44.1 percent of the people who had only continued with their existing treatment plans.

"We are not saying 'It's all in your mind,'" lead author Dan Cherkin said in a press statement. "Rather, as recent brain research has shown, the mind and the body are intimately intertwined, including in how they sense and respond to pain." Cherkin noted that CBT and MBSR were as effective as, and safer than, other treatments patients were using.

"Our findings are important because they add to the growing evidence that pain and other forms of suffering involve the mind as well as the body," Cherkin said. "Greater understanding and acceptance of the mind-body connection will provide patients and clinicians with new opportunities for improving the lives of persons with chronic back pain and other challenging conditions that are not always effectively managed with physical treatments alone."

The researchers hope to expand their study to determine how these treatments fare on a longer-term basis.