The most widely used psychological technique for treating chronic pain – which affects one in five adults – is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
A study published in online journal Evidence Based Mental Health says mindfulness meditation could be used to ‘lessen the severity and impact of pain from chronic health conditions and the accompanying stress associated with them’.
Researchers conducting the study, released on Thursday, say the breakthrough is important as not everyone living with the effects of chronic pain finds CBT helpful in reducing symptoms.
Mindfulness therapy uses meditation techniques of thought awareness, bodily sensation and the immediate environment.
The team behind the study searched research pools for relevant clinical trials assessing the effectiveness of CBT and mindfulness-based stress reduction for the treatment of ailments that have lasted for at least three months.
Out of an initial 184 clinical trials, 21 out of nearly 2000 people were selected.
The majority of the participants were women aged between 35 and 65, who suffered mostly from musculoskeletal pain.
But in nearly four out of 10 studies, the participants had suffered acute pain for more than a decade.
The study combined both direct and indirect evidence for the potential health impact of CBT into three factors: compared with usual or no care, mindfulness compared with usual or no care and mindfulness compared with CBT.
Both techniques showed an improvement in physical functioning and a decrease in pain severity and associated depression, compared with usual or no care.
But researchers warned only one out of the 21 trials compared CBT with mindfulness directly – and only 12 of the trials were deemed as reasonable or good quality.
The findings also showed it is too early to tell if either CBT or mindfulness was better for people with different types of pain and the related psychological symptoms.
However, the report pointed out that further research is needed to plug the gap in results.
The journal concluded: ‘Although a number of recommendations have been proposed to improve CBT for patients with chronic pain, an additional solution may be to offer patients mindfulness-based stress reduction since it shows promise in improving pain severity and reducing pain interference and psychological distress.’