Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Health Sciences


Rehabilitation Sciences

First Advisor

Dr. Arthur J. Nitz


Low back pain (LBP) is the top reason for Soldiers to seek medical care and one of the top reasons to be medically discharged. Mental health problems and psychosocial stressors have been increasing in Soldiers and are also top causes for medical discharge. Dysregulated stress has contributed to many Soldiers and Veterans to develop chronic LBP as well as mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research suggests that psychosocial characteristics, as opposed to physical factors or tissue health, contribute to chronic pain the most. Focusing entirely on tissues for individuals seeking care for LBP can increase disability and vulnerability. Attributing physical pain to mental health concerns, however, risks stigmatizing patients or making them feel dismissed. The purpose of this dissertation was to develop a pain neuroscience education (PNE) program for Veterans and Soldiers with LBP and stress and determine if PNE is more effective in improving disability, PTSD symptoms, and beliefs about pain compared to traditional education about back pain and stress.

This dissertation demonstrated that Veterans with PTSD can comprehend the neuroscience of pain and PTSD at a comparable level to a highly educated Veteran and medical panel without PTSD when adjusting for education. Since a proportion of participants were concerned that using military examples in PNE might increase PTSD symptoms, however, results from pilot testing suggested that the PNE materials developed for this dissertation should be tested in a clinical trial to ensure they do not increase PTSD symptoms.

A systematic review and meta-analysis demonstrated that Veterans with PTSD have higher depression and pain-catastrophizing beliefs for a large effect size compared to Veterans without PTSD. Furthermore, Veterans with PTSD have significantly lower pain self-efficacy with a large effect size. Compared to Veterans without PTSD, Veterans with PTSD have higher pain and disability. These results, however, were not confirmed in Veterans presenting to a Physical Therapy clinic. In fact, this dissertation revealed that many of the negative outcomes previously attributed to PTSD in the literature may be due to the correlation between PTSD symptoms and pain-catastrophizing beliefs rather than from trauma. Furthermore, Veterans with chronic LBP do not appear to have different sensitivity levels to pressure based on PTSD symptoms.

Finally, the results from a randomized controlled trial provide evidence that PNE greatly improves the confidence of Veterans and Soldiers to increase participation in social, work, and life roles despite the pain as measured by the pain self-efficacy questionnaire. Participants in the experimental group were more likely to achieve a meaningful reduction in disability at the 8-week follow-up compared to the control group. Furthermore, Veterans and Soldiers with LBP were more satisfied with how PNE explains pain and believed the PNE curriculum connected with their military experiences better than traditional psychosocial education about stress. Participants in the experimental arm were less likely to believe that exercise is harmful compared to traditional education. Finally, PNE improved PTSD symptoms beyond the clinically meaningful threshold in the experimental arm. In conclusion, PNE appears to be an effective treatment for PTSD, disability, and pain-related beliefs in Veterans and Soldiers with chronic LBP. These results should be replicated in a larger sample to ensure generalizability beyond the current study.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)