Page last updated at 01:59 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

Back pain 'eased by group therapy sessions'

Emma Wilkinson
Health reporter, BBC News

back pain
Back pain is a common problem

A form of group "talking therapy" is a cheap, effective way to alleviate low back pain, a UK trial has shown.

The positive effect was still seen a year after the short six-session therapy programme, The Lancet reported.

The 600 patients taking part in the trial were also offered standard GP treatment including pain medication.

The sessions were designed to tackle "unhelpful" beliefs around back pain and physical activity and help patients better manage their condition.

Usually people with low back pain - one of the most common complaints GPs deal with - are advised to keep active, offered pain relief where needed and possibly other treatments such as acupuncture.

In the study, 400 people being treated in general practice were offered the six group therapy sessions and 200 people receiving standard care were monitored for a year.

The sessions - based loosely around a technique called cognitive behaviour therapy - were set up to discuss beliefs around doing physical activity and counter negative thoughts about back pain and its restrictions as well as relaxation techniques.

The one-and-a-half-hour sessions were also designed to help people overcome "fear" of hurting themselves more and how to get active again whilst avoiding flare-ups.

A year later, the people who underwent therapy scored significantly more highly on questionnaires designed to measure pain and disability.

Value for money

When looking at the costs, the team found the therapy was relatively cheap when the improvement in quality of life was taken into account, and better than the value for money offered by treatments such as acupuncture.

The researchers, from the Universities of Warwick and Oxford, said effective treatments that produced long-term results are "elusive" in low back pain.

Study author Zara Hansen, a clinical research fellow at the University of Warwick, said healthcare staff, including physiotherapists, psychotherapists and nurses, could learn how to run the course in a couple of days.

"The exciting bit here is that with a lot of back pain interventions, you'll get a feel-good factor and patients will feel better while they're undergoing the treatment but it's a short-term effect.

"But we showed they improve up to six months and then this is maintained for up to a year as they learn to manage their condition."

The team is looking at a project to roll out the programme to other areas of the country.

Dr Graham Davenport, clinical champion for musculoskeletal conditions at the Royal College of GPs, said chronic back pain was an extremely common condition and this sort of therapy could prove extremely useful.

"It's really just about changing people's beliefs.

"It's an excellent and very sensible treatment, the problem is the logistics of getting staff trained to deliver it but if we could overcome that it would be great."

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