A mindful reconnection
Chronic low back pain can feel like it’s tearing you apart, but it brought two UD graduates back together.
Ben Kolber ’03 and Eric Helm ’03 first met their first year as floormates in Stuart Hall. They were also in a lot of the same classes. Helm was a pre-medicine major, and Kolber studied biology and psychology. They became good friends during school, but even in these days of being hyperconnected, they lost touch after graduation.
Kolber earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Washington University in St. Louis, and Helm went to the University of Toledo College of Medicine to earn his medical degree before they both landed in Pittsburgh.
“I had heard that Eric was in Pittsburgh, but I didn’t realize that he was in pain management until I found out that he was in the same class as one of my doctoral students,” said Kolber, who was a professor at Duquesne University. “From there it was natural to reconnect socially. So, we sat down at my favorite bar in Pittsburgh to chat. I realized very quickly that he was actively working with patients with low back pain as a specialty, and I knew that we needed to work together.”
They were both aware that exercise and meditation can help people suffering from low back pain, but no one had studied the two therapies together.
“Exercise is, generally speaking, really good therapy for lots of conditions, including low back pain. But you’re less likely to do it if you feel pain from the exercise,” said Kolber. “And then you also have this anxiety or kinesiophobia (fear of movement) that can accompany low back pain. Our hypothesis was that we could have people meditate for 10 to 15 minutes, so not a long time, to put them in a better headspace so that the exercise would be more beneficial.”
Kolber described mindfulness meditation as the spiritual equivalent of stretching in describing the benefit of doing a meditation prior to exercise.
“Mindfulness meditation is really all about paying attention to what’s going on in your body without judgment. So, for a pain patient, that would mean acknowledging that your low back is hurting but not letting that be the focus of your energy.”
For their four-week study, Helm and Kolber had participants complete a mindfulness meditation followed by 30 minutes of moderate-intensity walking.
“We suspected that each together would improve patient back pain, based on studies that have been done, but we wanted to know if there would be a synergistic effect that gives us a greater overall reduction in their back pain,” said Helm, who is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitaion.
Helm noted, in studies like this, there is usually a portion of the participants who don’t complete it for various reasons, but they didn’t see a lot of people dropping out.
“This was a pretty powerful indication, from a clinical research standpoint, that people really liked the combination and, once they started it, they wanted to finish the program,” said Helm.
Their published results in the journal Pain Medicine are encouraging. Their partnership has paid off professionally just like it did when they were students, and now the two are preparing to conduct a larger study.
“It’s so great to be able to do clinical research with a good friend of yours,” said Helm. “It brings us back to our days doing chemistry labs at UD.”
The experience has created a teachable moment for Kolber, who is now an associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas where he has established the Kolber Lab to study pain and stress.
“I tell my students in Dallas that you never know whether the person you’re on a group project with now is going to be someone who is going to influence your life later on. I don’t think I would have predicted that for me and Eric, and it’s awesome.”