In the spine or in the brain? Recent advances in pain neuroscience applied in the intervention for low back pain

Clin Exp Rheumatol. Sep-Oct 2017;35 Suppl 107(5):108-115. Epub 2017 Sep 29.


Conservative, surgical and pharmacological strategies for chronic low back pain (CLBP) management offer at best modest effect sizes in reducing pain and related disability, indicating a need for improvement. Such improvement may be derived from applying contemporary pain neuroscience to the management of CLBP. Current interventions for people with CLBP are often based entirely on a "biomedical" or "psychological" model without consideration of information concerning underlying pain mechanisms and contemporary pain neuroscience. Here we update readers with our current understanding of pain in people with CLBP, showing that CLBP is not limited to spinal impairments, but is also characterised by brain changes, including functional connectivity reorganisation in several brain regions and increased activation in brain regions of the so-called 'pain matrix' (or 'pain connectome'). Indeed, in a subgroup of the CLBP population brain changes associated with the presence of central sensitisation are seen. Understanding the role of these brain changes in CLBP improves our understanding not only of pain symptoms, but also of prevalent CLBP associated comorbidities such as sleep disturbances and fear avoidance behaviour. Applying contemporary pain neuroscience to improve care for people with CLBP includes identifying relevant pain mechanisms to steer intervention, addressing sleep problems and optimising exercise and activity interventions. This approach includes cognitively preparing patients for exercise therapy using (therapeutic) pain neuroscience education, followed by cognition-targeted functional exercise therapy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiopathology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Chronic Pain / physiopathology
  • Exercise Therapy
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / physiopathology*
  • Low Back Pain / therapy
  • Spine / physiopathology*