Aching Back? Put Your Mind to It

Issue Date: 
February 11, 2008

Study in journal PAIN describes relief by mindfulness meditation

Older adults with chronic lower back pain can benefit from a mindfulness meditation program, according to a study by University of Pittsburgh researchers in the February issue of the journal PAIN.

“Almost a quarter of older adults live with chronic lower back pain,” said Natalia Morone, assistant professor of general internal medicine in Pitt’s School of Medicine, who led the study. “Since chronic pain is associated with depression, decreased appetite, impaired sleep, and overall decreased quality of life, complementary medical techniques are a welcome addition to traditional treatments. Previous studies have noted mindfulness meditation’s benefits for those with chronic pain, but its effects had not been noted in older adults exclusively and low back pain specifically. With so many people seeking alternative therapies, we felt it was our responsibility to study it scientifically.”

Mindfulness meditation is a mind-body technique described as “paying attention on purpose” and “staying in the present moment” to experience each unfolding event. For this study, participants were taught three mindfulness meditation techniques: a body scan in which participants lie down and are asked to place their attention non-judgmentally on each area of the body; sitting practice, which focuses on breathing while sitting in a chair; and walking meditation, which is mindful slow walking with focused attention on body sensation and/or breathing.

“Mindfulness meditation focuses on letting go of struggle and accepting one’s condition without judgment. Participants have noted that the practice has a quieting effect and find that while practicing meditation, they can reduce their chronic pain by deflecting it and focusing on other parts of the body,” said Morone.

The pilot study was a randomized, controlled clinical trial involving 37 adults aged 65 or older who experienced chronic lower back pain occurring nearly every day. Participants were enrolled in an eight-week program and were seen in a group format for 90 minutes once a week. They were assessed on measures of pain, physical function, and quality of life at baseline, eight-week and three-month follow-up.

At the conclusion of the eight-week program, those with chronic low back pain noted an improved ability to cope with pain and improvement in physical function. At three-month follow-up, the majority of patients were still practicing meditation, suggesting that they had incorporated it into their daily lives because they had experienced an ongoing benefit associated with mindful meditation.

Morone was supported by a primary care faculty development training grant and the Roadmap Multidisciplinary Clinical Research Career Development Award Grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Other study authors were Carol M. Greco and Debra K. Weiner, both in Pitt’s School of Medicine.