It’s well known that stress and anxiety can exacerbate symptoms in patients with chronic pain. Previous research has also shown that depression can lead to worse outcomes for people with lower back pain. Studies suggest that spirituality could decrease psychological stress in patients with chronic pain, which may positively influence treatment outcomes.
Although studies have examined the effects of Christianity on psychological stress in chronic-pain patients, there are no studies on Buddhism and chronic musculoskeletal pain. Since Buddhism emphasizes mindfulness and mediation, researchers in a new study suspected that Buddhist beliefs would be associated with decreased disability in patients with back pain.
To test this hypothesis, researchers from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand administered a set of questionnaires to 463 office workers with back pain. The questionnaires assessed patients’ disability, fear avoidance beliefs, religious practices, and psychological stress. Additionally researchers collected saliva samples to assess salivary cortisol levels. Increased cortisol levels are associated with greater levels of stress.
People who practiced Buddhism had lower levels of psychological stress compared to non-Buddhists. However they did not have decreased disability. In fact, religious beliefs only accounted for a slight variation in the disability rate (6%). This led researchers to conclude that although spirituality decreases psychological stress, it does not significantly affect disability. Instead, depression was significantly associated with disability among the office workers.
“The findings from this study add to the mounting empirical evidence that the body and mind are inextricably linked,” the authors stated. They suggested that effective treatment “incorporate both physical and mental health interventions.”
Including psychological interventions can improve treatment for back pain. In fact, a recent study showed that there were no differences in treatment outcomes between patients who received surgery and those that were treated cognitive therapy.
Sooksawat A, et al. Are religious beliefs and practices of Buddhism associated with disability and salivary cortisol in office workers with chronic low back pain? BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2013; 14: 29. doi: 10.1186/1471-2474-14-29.