Applied Evidence

Nonpharmacologic treatment of chronic pain: What works?

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From The Journal of Family Practice | 2018;67(8):474-477,480-483.


A 12-week course of tai chi yielded benefits comparable to PT for patients with knee OA in terms of pain and function, and had better outcomes in secondary measures of depression and quality of life.

Mindfulness. Based on Eastern meditative traditions, mindfulness interventions focus on breathing and other body sensations as a means of bringing attention to the felt experience of the present moment. Mindfulness encourages a practice of detached observation with openness and curiosity, which allows for a reframing of experience. The growing body of mindfulness literature points to its effectiveness in a variety of pain conditions. A 2017 meta-analysis of mindfulness for pain conditions found a medium-sized effect on pain based on low-quality evidence (30 trials; n=2292).27

Participants can be taught in a series of group sessions (instruct interested patients to look for classes in their geographic area) or individually through a number of resources such as online audios, books, and smartphone applications.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation technique consisting of serially tightening and releasing different muscle groups to induce relaxation. Careful attention is paid to the somatic experience of tensing and releasing. Researchers have studied this technique for a variety of pain conditions, with the strongest effects observed in those with arthritis and those with LBP.19,28A variety of health care professionals can administer this therapy in office-based settings, and Internet-based audio recordings are available for home practice.

Complementary modalities for chronic pain

Complementary modalities are frequent additions to pain treatment plans. Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) and massage therapy are regarded as biomechanical interventions, while acupuncture is categorized as a bio-energetic intervention. As a group, these treatments can address structural issues that may be contributing to pain conditions.

SMT is practiced by chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, and physical therapists. SMT improves function through the use of thrust techniques—quick, high-velocity, low-amplitude force applied to a joint, as well as other manual non-thrust techniques sometimes referred to as “mobilization” techniques. Experts have proposed multiple mechanisms of action for spinal manipulation and mobilization techniques, but ultimately SMT attempts to improve joint range of motion.

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