New treatment provides hope for Australians living with chronic lower back pain

Sufferers of chronic back pain have experienced dramatic reductions in pain and related disability after taking part in a new treatment.

Detailed in a new paper in The Lancet, Australian researchers found significant improvements in the intensity of pain and pain-related disability at participants’ one-year follow-up after trialling the new treatment, called Cognitive Functional Therapy (CFT).

The almost 500 participants had been seeking help for their pain for an average of four years.

“Lower back pain is the leading cause of disability across the globe,” says lead author Associate Professor Peter Kent, from the School of Allied Health at Curtin University.

Two men in a gym discussing back pain. Left is a man wearing workout gear on an exercise bike, smiling at another man on the right in a shirt and trousers.
Trial participant Volker Rehbocks and Professor Peter O’Sullivan. Credit: Curtin University

“These exciting results give hope to the millions of people around the world who are disabled by back pain. It also provides a clear roadmap for clinicians, health services and policymakers on how to reduce the growing burden of chronic back pain with a high-value, low-risk approach based on the best scientific evidence.”

CFT takes a “whole-person approach” to treatment, helping people make lifestyle changes aimed at improving their social and emotional health. In this study, personalised and intensive coaching sessions helped people to make sense of their pain, focused on retraining them to move in ways that reduced their pain, and built confidence in movements and activities they had been afraid of or were avoiding.

Read more: Antidepressants get prescribed for chronic pain – but do they work?

The treatment program was delivered by 18 physiotherapists who had been specifically trained to deliver CFT, in up to seven sessions over a 12-week period and was followed by a booster session at six months.

Follow-up questionnaires up to 12 months later revealed that more than 80 per cent of the participants were satisfied with the treatment.

“This new treatment takes on board the individual characteristics of the person who has been living with chronic back pain by addressing their concerns and movement limitations under the skilled guidance of a trained physiotherapist,” adds co-author Professor Peter O’Sullivan, also from the Curtin School of Allied Health, who developed the new treatment.

“This differs to traditional, more passive approaches – including massage, spinal manipulation, medication and injections – because it puts the person in charge of their condition, helping them to understand the factors contributing to their pain, building control and confidence in their body to get back to valued activities.

“It was particularly rare and thrilling to discover that the significant reduction in pain and distress that these people living with chronic back pain experienced, had remained right up to one year after trialling this new treatment.”

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