Clinician Article

Psychological therapies for the management of chronic pain (excluding headache) in adults.

  • Williams ACC
  • Fisher E
  • Hearn L
  • Eccleston C
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Aug 12;8(8):CD007407. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007407.pub4. (Review)
PMID: 32794606
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  • Psychiatry
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • FM/GP/Mental Health
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • Special Interest - Pain -- Physician
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • Rheumatology
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 3/7
  • Gynecology
    Relevance - 4/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 4/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 4/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7


BACKGROUND: Chronic non-cancer pain, a disabling and distressing condition, is common in adults. It is a global public health problem and economic burden on health and social care systems and on people with chronic pain. Psychological treatments aim to reduce pain, disability and distress. This review updates and extends its previous version, published in 2012.

OBJECTIVES: To determine the clinical efficacy and safety of psychological interventions for chronic pain in adults (age > 18 years) compared with active controls, or waiting list/treatment as usual (TAU).

SEARCH METHODS: We identified randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of psychological therapies by searching CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase and PsycINFO to 16 April 2020. We also examined reference lists and trial registries, and searched for studies citing retrieved trials.

SELECTION CRITERIA: RCTs of psychological treatments compared with active control or TAU of face-to-face therapies for adults with chronic pain. We excluded studies of headache or malignant disease, and those with fewer than 20 participants in any arm at treatment end.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two or more authors rated risk of bias, extracted data, and judged quality of evidence (GRADE). We compared cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), behavioural therapy (BT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) with active control or TAU at treatment end, and at six month to 12 month follow-up. We did not analyse the few trials of other psychological treatments. We assessed treatment effectiveness for pain intensity, disability, and distress. We extracted data on adverse events (AEs) associated with treatment.

MAIN RESULTS: We added 41 studies (6255 participants) to 34 of the previous review's 42 studies, and now have 75 studies in total (9401 participants at treatment end). Most participants had fibromyalgia, chronic low back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, or mixed chronic pain. Most risk of bias domains were at high or unclear risk of bias, with selective reporting and treatment expectations mostly at unclear risk of bias. AEs were inadequately recorded and/or reported across studies. CBT The largest evidence base was for CBT (59 studies). CBT versus active control showed very small benefit at treatment end for pain (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.09, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.17 to -0.01; 3235 participants; 23 studies; moderate-quality evidence), disability (SMD -0.12, 95% CI -0.20 to -0.04; 2543 participants; 19 studies; moderate-quality evidence), and distress (SMD -0.09, 95% CI -0.18 to -0.00; 3297 participants; 24 studies; moderate-quality evidence). We found small benefits for CBT over TAU at treatment end for pain (SMD -0.22, 95% CI -0.33 to -0.10; 2572 participants; 29 studies; moderate-quality evidence), disability (SMD -0.32, 95% CI -0.45 to -0.19; 2524 participants; 28 studies; low-quality evidence), and distress (SMD -0.34, 95% CI -0.44 to -0.24; 2559 participants; 27 studies; moderate-quality evidence). Effects were largely maintained at follow-up for CBT versus TAU, but not for CBT versus active control. Evidence quality for CBT outcomes ranged from moderate to low. We rated evidence for AEs as very low quality for both comparisons. BT We analysed eight studies (647 participants). We found no evidence of difference between BT and active control at treatment end (pain SMD -0.67, 95% CI -2.54 to 1.20, very low-quality evidence; disability SMD -0.65, 95% CI -1.85 to 0.54, very low-quality evidence; or distress SMD -0.73, 95% CI -1.47 to 0.01, very low-quality evidence). At follow-up, effects were similar. We found no evidence of difference between BT and TAU (pain SMD -0.08, 95% CI -0.33 to 0.17, low-quality evidence; disability SMD -0.02, 95% CI -0.24 to 0.19, moderate-quality evidence; distress SMD 0.22, 95% CI -0.10 to 0.54, low-quality evidence) at treatment end. At follow-up, we found one to three studies with no evidence of difference between BT and TAU. We rated evidence for all BT versus active control outcomes as very low quality; for BT versus TAU. Evidence quality ranged from moderate to very low. We rated evidence for AEs as very low quality for BT versus active control. No studies of BT versus TAU reported AEs. ACT We analysed five studies (443 participants). There was no evidence of difference between ACT and active control for pain (SMD -0.54, 95% CI -1.20 to 0.11, very low-quality evidence), disability (SMD -1.51, 95% CI -3.05 to 0.03, very low-quality evidence) or distress (SMD -0.61, 95% CI -1.30 to 0.07, very low-quality evidence) at treatment end. At follow-up, there was no evidence of effect for pain or distress (both very low-quality evidence), but two studies showed a large benefit for reducing disability (SMD -2.56, 95% CI -4.22 to -0.89, very low-quality evidence). Two studies compared ACT to TAU at treatment end. Results should be interpreted with caution. We found large benefits of ACT for pain (SMD -0.83, 95% CI -1.57 to -0.09, very low-quality evidence), but none for disability (SMD -1.39, 95% CI -3.20 to 0.41, very low-quality evidence), or distress (SMD -1.16, 95% CI -2.51 to 0.20, very low-quality evidence). Lack of data precluded analysis at follow-up. We rated evidence quality for AEs to be very low. We encourage caution when interpreting very low-quality evidence because the estimates are uncertain and could be easily overturned.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: We found sufficient evidence across a large evidence base (59 studies, over 5000 participants) that CBT has small or very small beneficial effects for reducing pain, disability, and distress in chronic pain, but we found insufficient evidence to assess AEs. Quality of evidence for CBT was mostly moderate, except for disability, which we rated as low quality. Further trials may provide more precise estimates of treatment effects, but to inform improvements, research should explore sources of variation in treatment effects. Evidence from trials of BT and ACT was of moderate to very low quality, so we are very uncertain about benefits or lack of benefits of these treatments for adults with chronic pain; other treatments were not analysed. These conclusions are similar to our 2012 review, apart from the separate analysis of ACT.

Clinical Comments

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

This Cochrane review article of psychological treatment of chronic pain - fibromyalgia, LBP, RA and other mixed chronic pains- showed slight improvement with cognitive behavior therapy but with significant risks for bias. It showed no measurable benefit for behavior therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy.


This does not really add anything now, but it is still worth reading and with possible impact on clinical practice.


That psychological talk therapy helps chronic pain only a little bit is probably a newsworthy item.


This Cochrane meta analysis looks at the usefulness of cognitive behavioral therapy in the treatment of chronic pain. It helps very little with respect to the severity of the pain or disability. It's disappointing but not surprising to people who are in pain.

Special Interest - Pain -- Physician

This is yet another Cochrane review, this time assessing the efficacy and safety of psychological based therapies, mainly cognitive behavioural therapy, behavioural therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy in a range of chronic non-cancer pain clinic nditions with follow up out to 12 months. Like so many of these Cochrane reviews, the conclusions are predicated by the low quality of published studies included in the review which make the reliability of the review conclusions uncertain and make it impossible to assess the safety of many of these studies. The conclusions are that there is a small benefit from the use of behavioural therapy compared to usual treatment in most of the chronic pain conditions included in the review. Howeverm the poor quality of the published studies included and the uncertainty of the conclusions because of these poor quality studies raises the question of why publish this review if it does not add anything.

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