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Noninvasive Nonpharmacological Treatment for Chronic Pain

A Systematic Review Update

Systematic Review

This report is available in digital format only (Final Report [PDF, 13.4 MB]; Evidence Summary [PDF, 455 KB]; Appendix D [XSLX, 367.6 KB]; Disposition of Comments Report [PDF, 511.1 KB]). For additional information, please contact us.

Purpose of Review

To assess noninvasive nonpharmacological treatments for common chronic pain conditions.

Key Messages

  • Interventions that improved function and/or pain for ≥1 month:
    • Low back pain: Exercise, psychological therapy, spinal manipulation, low-level laser therapy, massage, mindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga, acupuncture, multidisciplinary rehabilitation (MDR).
    • Neck pain: Exercise, low-level laser, mind-body practices, massage, acupuncture.
    • Knee osteoarthritis: Exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
    • Hip osteoarthritis: Exercise, manual therapies.
    • Fibromyalgia: Exercise, CBT, myofascial release massage, mindfulness practices, tai chi, qigong, acupuncture, MDR.
    • Tension headache: Spinal manipulation.
  • Some interventions did not improve function or pain.
  • Serious harms were not observed with the interventions.

Structured Abstract

Objectives. We updated the evidence from our 2018 report assessing persistent improvement in outcomes following completion of therapy for noninvasive nonpharmacological treatment for selected chronic pain conditions.

Data sources. Electronic databases (Ovid MEDLINE®, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews) through November 2017 (for prior report) and from September 2017 through September 2019 (for this update report), reference lists, ClinicalTrials.gov, and our previous report.

Review methods. Using predefined criteria, we selected randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of noninvasive nonpharmacological treatments for five common chronic pain conditions (chronic low back pain; chronic neck pain; osteoarthritis of the knee, hip, or hand; fibromyalgia; and tension headache) that reported results for a at least 1 month postintervention. We analyzed effects and assessed strength of evidence (SOE) at short term (1 to <6 months following treatment completion), intermediate term (≥6 to <12 months), and long term (≥12 months).

Results. We included 233 RCTs (31 new to this update). Many were small (N<70), and evidence beyond 12 months after treatment completion was sparse. The most common comparison was with usual care. Evidence on harms was limited, with no evidence suggesting increased risk for serious treatment-related harms for any intervention. Effect sizes were generally small for function and pain.

Chronic low back pain: Psychological therapies were associated with small improvements compared with usual care or an attention control for both function and pain at short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term followup (SOE: moderate). Function improved over short and/or intermediate term for exercise, low-level laser therapy, spinal manipulation, massage, yoga, acupuncture, and multidisciplinary rehabilitation (SOE moderate at short term for exercise, massage, and yoga; low for all others). Improvements in pain at short term were seen for massage, mindfulness-based stress reduction, acupuncture, and multidisciplinary rehabilitation (SOE: moderate), and exercise, low-level laser therapy, and yoga (SOE: low). At intermediate term, spinal manipulation, yoga, multidisciplinary rehabilitation (SOE: moderate) and exercise and mindfulness-based stress reduction (SOE: low) were associated with improved pain. Compared with exercise, multidisciplinary rehabilitation improved both function and pain at short and intermediate terms (small effects, SOE: moderate.)

Chronic neck pain: In the short term, low-level laser therapy (SOE: moderate) and massage (SOE: low) improved function and pain. Exercise in general improved function long term, and combination exercise improved function and pain both short and long term compared with usual care (SOE: low). Acupuncture improved function short and intermediate term, but there was no pain improvement compared with sham acupuncture (SOE: low). Compared with acetaminophen, Pilates improved both function and pain (SOE: low).

Osteoarthritis pain: Exercise resulted in small improvements in function and pain at short-term (SOE: moderate) and long-term (SOE: low), and moderate improvement at intermediate-term (SOE: low) followup for knee osteoarthritis versus nonactive comparators. Small improvements in function and pain with exercise were seen for hip osteoarthritis short term (SOE: low). Functional improvement persisted into intermediate term, but pain improvement did not (SOE: low).

Fibromyalgia: Functional improvements were seen with exercise, mind-body practices, multidisciplinary rehabilitation (SOE: low) and acupuncture (SOE: moderate) short term compared with usual care, attention control, or sham treatment. At intermediate term, there was functional improvement with exercise and acupuncture (SOE: moderate), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction, myofascial release, and multidisciplinary rehabilitation (SOE: low). Long term, functional improvements persisted for multidisciplinary rehabilitation without improvement in pain (SOE: low). Compared with exercise, tai chi conferred improvement in function short and intermediate term (SOE: low). Pain was improved with exercise (short and intermediate term, SOE moderate), and for CBT (short term), mindfulness practices, and multidisciplinary rehabilitation (intermediate term) (SOE low).

Chronic tension headache: Evidence was sparse and the majority of trials were of poor quality. Spinal manipulation resulted in moderate improvement in pain short term.

Conclusions. Trials identified subsequent to the earlier report largely support previous findings—namely that exercise, multidisciplinary rehabilitation, acupuncture, CBT, mindfulness practices, massage, and mind-body practices most consistently improve function and/or pain beyond the course of therapy for specific chronic pain conditions. Additional research, including comparisons with pharmacological and other active controls, on effects beyond the immediate post-treatment period is needed, particularly for conditions other than low back pain.

Suggested Citation 

Skelly AC, Chou R, Dettori JR, Turner JA, Friedly JL, Rundell SD, Fu R, Brodt ED, Wasson N, Kantner S, Ferguson AJR. Noninvasive Nonpharmacological Treatment for Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review Update. Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 227. (Prepared by the Pacific Northwest Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-2015-00009-I.) AHRQ Publication No. 20-EHC009. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; April 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.23970/AHRQEPCCER227. Posted final reports are located on the Effective Health Care Program search page.