Many psychotherapeutic interventions are available to treat pain. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Cognitive Therapy, and Behavior Therapy are shown to be effective in improving pain-related outcomes among patients with chronic pain. However, little is known about whether one of these treatments is superior.
Burns et al. [Pain] conducted a randomized controlled trial to compare the effect of these three interventions relative to each other as well as to a treatment-as-usual control group on pain-related outcomes. Relative efficacy, rate of benefit gained, and persistence of effect at follow up were compared across groups.
The researchers randomly assigned 521 participants (51% Black; 58% female; average age = 53 years; average duration of pain = 12 years) with chronic lower back pain to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Cognitive Therapy, Behavioral Therapy, or a treatment-as-usual control. Participants had significant daily back pain and related impairments in activities of daily living for at least six-months.
All treatments were manualized and delivered in eight weekly 90-minute individual therapy sessions by clinical psychologists with prior experience in psychosocial interventions for pain. Participants were assessed on pain interference and intensity and pain-related outcomes of mood, sleep disturbance, and physical functioning at study baseline, weekly during the treatment period, and at 6-month follow-up.
MBSR participants engaged in body scan, sitting, and gentle movement meditations, and focused on cultivating mindfulness in activities of daily life. Cognitive Therapy participants learned to identify, evaluate, and correct automatic pain-related thoughts. Behavior Therapy participants learned how to set and track realistic daily activity goals aimed at graded increases in activities such as walking and standing, as well as increased engagement in pleasure-generating activities.
Treatment-as-usual was whatever standard care participants received before the start of the study, usually pain medication and social support from a medical team.
The results showed that all three therapy groups were superior to the control group. The range of effect sizes for treatment groups compared to the control group were of small size for pain interference and physical functioning (Cohen’s d=0.21-0.26) and up to medium size for pain intensity (d=0.30-0.48), mood (d=0.26-0.53), and sleep disturbance (d=0.26-0.61). This superiority over the control group was statistically equivalent across the therapy groups, and no one therapy (MBSR, CT, BT) showed superiority over any other therapy group.
All three therapy groups diverged from the control group by week six of therapy on all measures, thus shedding light on an important time signal of change. All therapy group gains over the control group were maintained at six-month follow-up. Again, no single treatment group was significantly superior to any other treatment group at follow-up.
The study shows that three different psychotherapeutic interventions lend benefit on pain-related outcomes beyond that of standard care practices for patients with long-term pain. Findings uncover that multiple therapies can aid in improving pain outcomes, giving patients the option to select a therapy they prefer.
The study is limited given that the MBSR group did not receive the full curriculum, and there was no indication of whether therapists delivering MBSR had adequate training in the program and a personal meditation practice.
Burns, J. W., Jensen, M. P., Thorn, B. E., Lillis, T. A., Carmody, J., Newman, A. K., & Keefe, F. (2021). Cognitive therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and behavior therapy for the treatment of chronic pain: A single-blind randomized controlled trial. Pain.
Link to study