Cognitive Change and Relaxation as Key Mechanisms of Treatment Outcome in Chronic Pain: Evidence From Routine Care

Front Psychiatry. 2021 Aug 3:12:617871. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.617871. eCollection 2021.


Despite effective treatment approaches within the cognitive behavioral framework general treatment effects for chronic pain are rather small to very small. Translation from efficacy trials to naturalistic settings is questionable. There is an urgent need to improve the effectiveness of well-established treatments, such as cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) and the investigation of mechanisms of change is a promising opportunity. We performed secondary data analysis from routine data of 1,440 chronic pain patients. Patients received CBT in a multidisciplinary setting in two inpatient clinics. Effect sizes and reliable change indices were computed for pain-related disability and depression. The associations between changes in the use of different pain coping skills (cognitive restructuring, activity despite pain, relaxation techniques and mental distraction) and changes in clinical outcomes were analyzed in structural equation models. Pre-post effect sizes range from g = 0.47 (disability) to g = 0.89 (depression). Changes in the use of cognitive restructuring, relaxation and to a lesser degree mental distraction were associated with changes in disability and depression. Effects from randomized trials can be translated to naturalistic settings. The results complement experimental research on mechanisms of change in the treatment of chronic pain and indicate an important role of cognitive change and relaxation as mechanisms of change. Our findings cautiously suggest that clinicians should optimize these processes in chronic pain patients to reduce their physical and emotional disability.

Keywords: chronic pain; cognitive behavioral therapy; coping skills; effectiveness; mechanisms of change; multidisciplinary pain treatment; naturalistic.