New Study Suggests You Can Unlearn Chronic Back Pain

Chronic pain reshapes the brain in self-perpetuating ways that one treatment helps to change
By Mat Lecompte
Mat Lecompte
Mat Lecompte
October 15, 2021 Updated: October 15, 2021

Chronic back pain affects millions of Americans. Most, however, can’t identify the source of that pain. Neither can X-rays, tests, or other tools that doctors use to diagnose such problems.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, most treatments don’t work.

About 85 percent of people who report chronic back pain don’t have a test result to highlight a cause. They go through physical therapy and medication to no avail. But a new study suggests that a few weeks may be all that’s needed to unlearn pain.

Most treatments for chronic pain operate under the assumption that it’s caused by the body. This new study was done under the premise that the brain can generate pain in the absence of an injury or after an injury has healed. By unlearning that pain, sufferers may be able to relieve their suffering.

The study had very strong results. It involved 151 men and women who experienced back pain for at least six months. They were divided into three groups: a treatment group, a control group that continued with their routine treatment, and a placebo group that received a subcutaneous saline injection in the back. The treatment group took part in a four-week psychological treatment known as pain reprocessing therapy, attending eight one-hour sessions.

The findings were published in JAMA Psychology on Sept. 29.

Results show that two-thirds (66 percent) of the treatment group were pain-free or nearly pain-free after treatment, and they stayed that way for one year. That compared to 20 percent who received the placebo and 10 percent who continued with routine treatment.

Researchers explained that neural pathways are partly to blame for how people experience pain. Different brain regions are activated more often during chronic pain than acute pain. Certain neural networks in chronic pain patients are sensitive to overreact to mild stimuli. Therefore, by thinking about pain as something safe instead of threatening, patients may be able to neutralize it.

This seems to be what happened during the study. Brain scans revealed that brain regions associated with pain processing had quieted significantly after treatment.

If you’ve been experiencing untreatable chronic pain, this is an avenue worth exploring. It may have lasting effects to help you get back to a pain-free life.

Mat Lecompte is a health and wellness journalist. This article was first published on

Mat Lecompte