Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Reduces Lower Back Pain

Suffering from lower back pain can feel like an endurance test of Olympic proportions, wearing you down physically, mentally and emotionally. You’ve likely tried all the remedies your physician has prescribed and then some, scouring the Internet for alternative treatments. For many people, especially those who have chronic low back pain, finding relief can bring on feelings of desperation and futility.

What if there were a way to help you manage your pain and relieve the damage it’s causing to your mind and emotional state? According to current research, there is – cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

What is CBT?

CBT is a form of psychological therapy that works by training you to focus and modify your thoughts (the cognitive) as well as your actions (the behavioral). Ongoing research has shown that changing your thoughts about your pain can change how your body physically responds to pain.

You may not be able to stop your physical pain; but, with practice, you can learn to control how your mind manages the pain. Negative thoughts can derail your everyday life by keeping you focused on your pain and what you can’t do. CBT works by focusing on changing these negative thoughts, learning pain-coping strategies and relaxation skills, and setting and working toward behavioral goals.

Anyone suffering from chronic pain knows the torture of how long just one minute can feel, as they stretch out into what seems an infinite day of pain. CBT helps you focus on increasing your awareness of your mind and body and accepting your experiences, moment by moment, without trying to change your experiences, including your unpleasant emotions and physical pain.

How CBT Helps Back Pain

Successful CBT is best done through meetings with a CBT trained therapist. The number and length of sessions may vary, but you should expect to attend for at least eight weeks. You may want to schedule an interview with two or three therapists to find one that you feel most comfortable and a good fit.

Over the course of the sessions, your therapist will train you to use CBT in order to:

  1. Identify your negative thoughts
  2. Stop these negative thoughts
  3. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones
  4. Practice using positive thoughts
  5. Develop healthy thinking and actions

These steps are proven to help you manage your pain. Think of healthy thinking the same as you think of taking care of body’s physical health. CBT and mindfulness meditation are more effective than traditional medical and home treatments for reducing chronic lower back pain, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. CBT works because your mind and body are connected:

  • Positive thinking – Healthy thinking calms your mind, and therefore also calms your body. Positive thinking to calm yourself uses mental techniques such as imagery and changing negative thoughts into positing thoughts. An example would be [negative] “I cannot do any of the things I like anymore,” to [positive] “I am finding pleasure in new hobbies and activities I would not have thought of before.” Positive thinking involves more than just the mind. Yoga and massage may also employed to increase positive thinking.
  • Becoming more active – CBT also teaches you to become more physically active. Physical activity is important because regular, low-impact exercise can help reduce and prevent back pain over time. Being physically fit also helps you feel better overall and provides you with more energy. Walking and swimming are two excellent low-impact exercises.

Setting Goals with CBT

For CBT to help reduce back pain, your treatment needs to proceed in steps, not leaps. Your pain may make you feel impatient, understandably. Your goals also need to be realistic. For example, your goals may be to get out more, participate in more activities with friends and start exercising. You will need to break this goal into smaller and easier steps. Visiting one or two friends at first and taking short walks is realistic. Signing up for a 5K with all of your friends for your first outing is not realistic.

Keep the long-term end goal in mind as you proceed through your therapy – CBT is a marathon, not a sprint. When you get frustrated, remember that working on your mind with healthy thinking makes you feel better. Feeling better reduces your pain.


Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Balderson BH, et al. Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction vs cognitive behavioral therapy or usual care on back pain and functional limitations in adults with chronic low back pain. JAMA. 2016;315(12):1240-1249.

If you are experiencing back pain from any cause or reason, request an appointment at Edison Spine Center. We’ll be able to diagnose the cause of your pain and put you on the road to recovery. Whether you’re a patient, lawyer, case worker or referring doctor, we at Edison Spine Center are the experts you can trust.

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