Chronic pain affects millions of people in the United States, and it can severely interfere with everyday functioning. However, recent research suggests a new treatment strategy for the condition: shared reading.

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Researchers suggest that shared reading could be better than CBT for alleviating chronic pain.

Shared reading is an interactive reading experience in which small groups of people gather to read short stories, poetry, and other literature aloud.

By using literature that triggers memories of experiences throughout life – such as childhood and relationships – researchers have found that shared reading might be a more effective strategy to help alleviate chronic pain than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Study leader Dr. Josie Billington, from the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, and colleagues recently reported their results in the journal Medical Humanities.

Chronic pain – defined as any form of pain that lasts for at least 12 weeks – is estimated to affect around 100 million people in the U.S.

Low back pain, severe headache or migraine, and neck pain are the most common forms of pain, with back pain being the leading cause of disability in the U.S.

While there are a number of medications that can help with chronic pain management, they are not always effective. Patients are increasingly turning to non-pharmacological strategies, such as CBT, to help alleviate pain.

CBT is a form of talk therapy that aims to change the way people think and behave in order to better manage mental and physical issues. Studies have shown that the technique may be effective for chronic pain, but the results can be short-lived.

For their research, Billington and colleagues wanted to compare shared reading with CBT for chronic pain, since shared reading is often used to help ease the symptoms of other chronic conditions, such as dementia.

Participants with severe chronic pain were recruited to the study. Some subjects completed 5 weeks of CBT, and parallel to this, the remaining subjects completed 22 weeks of shared reading. After 5 weeks, participants who completed CBT joined the shared reading group.

The shared reading strategy incorporated literature that was designed to prompt memories of relationships, family members, work, and other experiences that arise throughout a lifetime, as opposed to CBT, which focused on a single point in time at which the patient was affected by chronic pain.

Subjects were required to report pain severity and emotions before and after each intervention, and they also kept a diary, where they recorded their pain and emotions twice daily.

While CBT helped participants to “manage” their emotions using organized methods, the researchers found that shared reading helped patients to address painful emotions that might be contributing to their chronic pain.

Furthermore, the researchers found that pain severity and mood improved for up to 2 days following shared reading.

Our study indicated that shared reading could potentially be an alternative to CBT in bringing into conscious awareness areas of emotional pain otherwise passively suffered by chronic pain patients.

The encouragement of greater confrontation and tolerance of emotional difficulty that sharing reading provides makes it valuable as a longer-term follow-up or adjunct to CBT’s concentration on short-term management of emotion.”

Dr. Josie Billington

While the findings show promise for shared reading as an alternative non-pharmacological approach for chronic pain management, the team says that further studies with larger sample sizes are warranted.

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