Psychological interventions for chronic, non-specific low back pain: systematic review with network meta-analysis

BMJ. 2022 Mar 30:376:e067718. doi: 10.1136/bmj-2021-067718.


Objective: To determine the comparative effectiveness and safety of psychological interventions for chronic low back pain.

Design: Systematic review with network meta-analysis.

Data sources: Medline, Embase, PsycINFO, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Web of Science, SCOPUS, and CINAHL from database inception to 31 January 2021.

Eligibility criteria for study selection: Randomised controlled trials comparing psychological interventions with any comparison intervention in adults with chronic, non-specific low back pain. Two reviewers independently screened studies, extracted data, and assessed risk of bias and confidence in the evidence. Primary outcomes were physical function and pain intensity. A random effects network meta-analysis using a frequentist approach was performed at post-intervention (from the end of treatment to <2 months post-intervention); and at short term (≥2 to <6 months post-intervention), mid-term (≥6 to <12 months post-intervention), and long term follow-up (≥12 months post-intervention). Physiotherapy care was the reference comparison intervention. The design-by-treatment interaction model was used to assess global inconsistency and the Bucher method was used to assess local inconsistency.

Results: 97 randomised controlled trials involving 13 136 participants and 17 treatment nodes were included. Inconsistency was detected at short term and mid-term follow-up for physical function, and short term follow-up for pain intensity, and were resolved through sensitivity analyses. For physical function, cognitive behavioural therapy (standardised mean difference 1.01, 95% confidence interval 0.58 to 1.44), and pain education (0.62, 0.08 to 1.17), delivered with physiotherapy care, resulted in clinically important improvements at post-intervention (moderate quality evidence). The most sustainable effects of treatment for improving physical function were reported with pain education delivered with physiotherapy care, at least until mid-term follow-up (0.63, 0.25 to 1.00; low quality evidence). No studies investigated the long term effectiveness of pain education delivered with physiotherapy care. For pain intensity, behavioural therapy (1.08, 0.22 to 1.94), cognitive behavioural therapy (0.92, 0.43 to 1.42), and pain education (0.91, 0.37 to 1.45), delivered with physiotherapy care, resulted in clinically important effects at post-intervention (low to moderate quality evidence). Only behavioural therapy delivered with physiotherapy care maintained clinically important effects on reducing pain intensity until mid-term follow-up (1.01, 0.41 to 1.60; high quality evidence).

Conclusions: For people with chronic, non-specific low back pain, psychological interventions are most effective when delivered in conjunction with physiotherapy care (mainly structured exercise). Pain education programmes (low to moderate quality evidence) and behavioural therapy (low to high quality evidence) result in the most sustainable effects of treatment; however, uncertainty remains as to their long term effectiveness. Although inconsistency was detected, potential sources were identified and resolved.

Systematic review registration: PROSPERO CRD42019138074.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy* / methods
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain* / therapy
  • Network Meta-Analysis
  • Psychosocial Intervention
  • Research Design