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.


Good plan, but how did the office visit go?

A 2006 study by Laerum et al provided unique insights into the best ways to manage chronic pain.40 The authors asked patients a simple question: “What makes a good back consult?” The answers were deceptively simple, but serve as an excellent resource when working with patients to address their pain.

What makes a good back consult? Patients say it's important to take their complaints seriously, explain what's causing their pain, and discuss what can be done.

Patients indicated that taking their pain seriously was key to a good back consult. Other factors that were important to patients included: receiving an explanation of what is causing the pain, addressing psychosocial factors, and discussing what could be done.40 The following tips can help you address these patient priorities:

  • Explain the underlying cause of the pain. Explaining the complex interplay of factors affecting pain helps patients understand why nonpharmacologic therapies are important. As an example, patients may accept mindfulness meditation as a treatment option if they understand that their chronic LBP is modulated in the brain.
  • Address lifestyle and psychosocial issues. Pain syndromes cause far-reaching problems ranging from sleep dysfunction and weight gain to disrupted relationships and loss of employment. Explicitly addressing these issues helps patients cope better with these realities and gives clinicians more therapeutic targets.

The Veterans Affairs Health System offers a self-administered personal health inventory that can facilitate a patient-driven discussion about self-care. (See the Personal Health Inventory form available at: In addition to identifying areas for growth, the inventory can highlight what is going well for a patient, adding an element of optimism that is often lacking in office visits for pain problems.

  • Discuss what can be done in a way that empowers patients. Moving past medications when discussing pain treatment plans can be challenging. The goal of such discussions is to be as comprehensive as possible by including self-management aspects and nonpharmacologic approaches, in addition to appropriate medications. But this doesn’t all have to be done at once. Help patients set realistic goals for lifestyle-related change, and start with 1 or 2 nonpharmacologic therapies first. This approach both empowers patients and provides them with new treatment options that offer the hope of improved function.

Russell Lemmon, DO, 1100 Delaplaine Court, Madison, WI 53715; [email protected].


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