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.


Psychological therapies for the treatment of chronic pain are generally based on a cognitive-behavioral theoretical platform. Cognitive processes surrounding the experience (or avoidance) of pain are thought to exacerbate pain symptoms. Patients are encouraged to shift their mental framework away from a pain-oriented focus and toward a personal goal-oriented focus.15

Overall, research has found cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) to be effective in the management of chronic pain. A 2012 Cochrane review of psychological therapies used in the treatment of nonspecific chronic pain found CBT particularly effective at pain reduction and improvement in disability and pain-related coping skills (35 trials; n=4788).15

Psychological therapy is generally delivered in a face-to-face encounter, either individually or in a group setting; however, a 2014 Cochrane review suggests that Web-based interventions are efficacious as well.16 Low-quality evidence in a 2013 Cochrane review of CBT for fibromyalgia demonstrated a medium-sized effect of CBT on pain at long-term follow-up (23 trials; n=2031)17 (TABLE 25,17-25).

Mind-body therapies for chronic pain: The evidence

Biofeedback therapy gives patients real-time information about body processes to help bring those processes under voluntary control. Biofeedback devices measure parameters such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension and give patients visual or auditory cues to help bring those parameters into desired ranges. There is evidence of benefit in a variety of pain conditions including fibromyalgia, arthritis, LBP, and headache.18,19,26

Many psychologists are trained in biofeedback. A trained therapist usually guides biofeedback interventions initially, but patients can then utilize the skills indepen­dently. Devices can be purchased for home use. Phone-based applications are available and can be used, as well.

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