Mindfulness meditation can lead to back pain relief in older adults

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Mindfulness meditation programs can help reduce severe pain and increase function for older adults with chronic low back pain, according to new research led by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Published online and scheduled for the March issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, the study reports that after an eight-week mind-body program, people with chronic low back pain noted an improvement in their physical function and a decrease in their current and most severe pain. The research was supported by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Since effective treatments for chronic lower back pain are limited, complementary medical therapies are a welcome addition to conventional treatments,” says lead investigator Natalia Morone, associate professor of medicine, Pitt School of Medicine.

Mindfulness meditation is a mind-body method described as paying attention on purpose and staying in the present moment to experience each unfolding event. The study assessed the effects of mindfulness on 282 adults age 65 and older who experienced chronic lower back pain daily or almost every day. Participants were taught three mindfulness meditation methods, which they practiced alone and in group sessions for eight weeks. The methods were: self-examination, in which the participant lays down and focuses attention non-judgmentally on each area of the body; sitting practice, which focuses on breathing while seated; and walking meditation, which is mindful, slow walking with focused attention on how the body feels.

Participants were assessed on measures of pain, physical function, self-efficacy and quality of life before the program began, at the end of the program and at a six-month follow-up.

The study found that the mind-body program helped with pain management even six months after the program, indicating there is a long-term benefit on coping with pain. However, while patient function was immediately improved after the eight-week program, at the six-month follow-up, the impact of the program on function was not significant. At six-months, 76% of participants still noted improvement in their back pain symptoms and their ability to cope with pain as a result of the mind-body program.

“Mindfulness meditation focuses on letting go of struggle and accepting one’s condition without judgement,” says Morone. “The mind-body program teaches patients how to be more aware of their thoughts, emotions, sensations and behaviours. As patients learn to do this, they can become more aware of behaviours or even thoughts and feelings about pain that make it worse, or more difficult for them to do activities.”