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Fear of Movement/(Re)injury in Chronic Low Back Pain: Education or Exposure In Vivo as Mediator to Fear Reduction?

de Jong, Jeroen R. MSc*†; Vlaeyen, Johan W. S. PhD‡§∥; Onghena, Patrick PhD; Goossens, Mariëlle E. J. B. PhD‡§; Geilen, Mario PT#; Mulder, Herman OT#

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Clinical research of graded exposure in vivo with behavioral experiments in patients with chronic low back pain who reported fear of movement/(re)injury shows abrupt changes in self-reported pain-related fears and cognitions. The abrupt changes are more characteristics of insight learning rather than the usual gradual progression of trial and error learning. The educational session at the start of the exposure might have contributed to this insight. The current study examines the contribution of education and graded exposure versus graded activity in the reduction of pain-related fear and associated disability and physical activity. Six consecutive patients with chronic low back pain who reported substantial fear of movement/(re)injury were included in the study. After a no-treatment baseline measurement period, all the patients received a single educational session, followed again by a no-treatment period. Patients were then randomly assigned to either a graded exposure with behavioral experiments or an operant graded activity program. A diary was used to assess daily changes in pain intensity, pain-related fear, pain catastrophizing, and activity goal achievement. Standardized questionnaires of pain-related fear, pain vigilance, pain intensity, and pain disability were administered before and after each intervention and at the 6-month follow-up. An activity monitor was carried at baseline, during the interventions, and 1 week at 6-month follow-up. Randomization tests of the daily measures showed that improvements in pain-related fear and catastrophizing occurred after the education was introduced. The results also showed a further improvement when exposure in vivo followed the no-treatment period after the education and not during the operant graded activity program. Performance of relevant daily activities, however, were not affected by the educational session and improved significantly only in the exposure in vivo condition. All improvements remained at half-year follow-up only in patients receiving the exposure in vivo. These patients also reported a significant decrease in pain intensity at follow-up.

From the *Department of Rehabilitation, University Hospital Maastricht, Maastricht, The Netherlands; †Department of Medical Psychology, University Hospital Maastricht, Maastricht, The Netherlands; ‡Institute for Rehabilitation Research, Hoensbroek, The Netherlands; §Department of Medical, Clinical, and Experimental Psychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands; Pain Management and Research Center, University Hospital Maastricht, Maastricht, The Netherlands; ¶Department of Educational Sciences, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium; and #Rehabilitation Center "Hoensbroeck," Hoensbroek, The Netherlands.

Received and accepted for publication December 31, 2003.

Reprints: Jeroen R. de Jong, MSc, Department of Rehabilitation, University Hospital Maastricht, PO Box 5800, Maastricht, NL 6202 AZ, The Netherlands (e-mail: jdjo@frev.azm.nl).

© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.