Researchers trying to help patients “unlearn” back pain

FAN Editor

Millions of adults are coping with chronic back pain, which can significantly limit their ability to work and do other daily activities. But researchers in Colorado are studying a unique non-drug treatment to eliminate that pain.

Daniel Waldrip suffered with chronic back pain for 20 years, and doctors could never find the source. “I made the decision that I was gonna keep running and trying to play golf and skiing. I was just gonna do it and pay the price,” Waldrip said.

He was willing to try anything for relief, including physical therapy and acupuncture. “It was getting progressively worse through the years. It just became part of life,” Waldrip recalled.

Then he heard about a treatment being tested called pain reprocessing therapy.

Dr. Yoni Ashar led research on it at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Ashar explains, “Changes in the brain cause the pain to persist. Basically, the brain learns the pain, and what we tried to do in this study was teach people how to unlearn the pain.”

In the study of about 150 people with chronic back pain, 66% of patients who had pain reprocessing therapy were pain-free or nearly pain-free after 4 weeks compared to 20% of the placebo group and 10% of the non-treatment group. Most maintained relief for a year.

Regions of the brain associated with pain were also changed after the therapy.

“The pain is always real. But if the problems lay in the brain, the solution may lay there too. And so, we taught people to think differently and to feel differently about their pain, to understand that the pain is basically a false alarm,” Ashar said.

“I started to believe that actually there was no injury, that no damage was being done. I didn’t get better right away. But that was the turning point,” Waldrip said.

It’s been four years since Waldrip took part in the research. “This changed everything for me. It gave me my life back,” Waldrip said.

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