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Biopsychosocial Approaches to the Treatment of Chronic Pain

Nielson, Warren R. Ph.D., C.Psych.*; Weir, Robin R.N., Ph.D.

Section Editor(s): Smith, Brochk M.A., B.Comm.; Gribbin, Moira M.B., F.R.C.P.C., M.Sc.


Background: Biopsychosocial treatments address the range of physical, psychological, and social components of chronic pain.

Objective: This review sought to determine how effective unimodal and multimodal biopsychosocial approaches are in the treatment of chronic pain.

Methodology: The literature search identified three systematic reviews of the literature and 21 randomized controlled trials to provide the evidence for this review.

Results: The systematic reviews and 12 randomized controlled trials reported on chronic low back pain. Other randomized controlled trials studied fibromyalgia (three trials) and back or other musculoskeletal disorders (five trials). Biopsychosocial components reviewed were electromyogram feedback and hypnosis as unimodal approaches, and behavioral and cognitive-behavioral treatments and back school, or group education, as multimodal approaches for chronic low back pain. For other chronic pain disorders, cognitive-behavioral treatments were reviewed. Comparisons were hindered by studies with heterogeneous subjects, varied comparison groups, different cointerventions and follow-up times, variable outcomes, and a range of analytic methods.

Conclusions: Multimodal biopsychosocial treatments that include cognitive-behavioral and/or behavioral components are effective for chronic low back pain and other musculoskeletal pain for up to 12 months (level 2). There is limited evidence (level 3) that electromyogram feedback is effective for chronic low back pain for up to 3 months. The remaining evidence of longer-term effectiveness and of effectiveness of other interventions was inadequate (level 4a) or contradictory (level 4b). Future studies of cognitive-behavioral treatments should be condition specific, rather than include patients with different pain conditions.

*Department of Medicine, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario; and †School of Nursing, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University, †System Linked Research Unit on Health and Social Service Utilisation, †Quality of Life and Nurse Effectiveness Unit, School of Nursing, and †Chronic Pain Programme, Hamilton Health Sciences Corporation Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Address correspondence to Dr. Warren Nielson, Room K368, Arthritis Institute, St. Joseph's Health Care, 268 Grosvenor Street, London, Ontario, Canada N6A 4V2; e-mail:

© 2001 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.