Utah researchers say they’ve developed a technique that allows patients to use the power of their minds to help treat chronic pain.
One in five people worldwide suffers from daily chronic pain, according to a 2004 report. A 2011 paper from the Institute of Medicine showed that one in three U.S. adults is affected by this condition.
The University of Utah’s Eric Garland said his team’s technique not only helps relieve pain, but can also decrease prescription misuse among chronic pain patients.
A variety of therapies are used to treat chronic pain including over-the-counter pain relievers, exercise and diet, alternative medical therapies such as acupuncture and prescription opiate-based pain medications, which can have serious side effects and lead to dependency.
Garland calls his new intervention technique Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement and said it is designed to train people to react differently to pain, stress and opioid-related cues.
“Mental interventions can address physical problems, like pain, on both psychological and biological levels because the mind and body are interconnected,” Garland said. “Anything that happens in the brain happens in the body — so by changing brain functioning, you alter the functioning of the body.”
In a study published online in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Garland said the new treatment method led to a 63- percent reduction in the misuse of opioids, as compared to a 32-percent decrease among those who took part in a conventional support group.
Patients who were a part of the new treatment group also reported a 22 percent drop in pain-related impairment, something that the researchers said continued for three months after the end of their treatment period.
According to Garland, the technique zeroes in on the basic processes involved in both chronic pain and the abuse of opioids, by combining three therapeutic components: mindfulness training, reappraisal and savoring.
The mindfulness training component consists of training the patient’s mind to increase its awareness, gain control over their attention, and learn to control automatic habits.
The reappraisal module is the process of taking the meaning of a stressful or negative experience and turning it around in such a way that it is seen as something positive and promotes growth.
Savoring is a method of learning that teaches patients to center their attention on positive events in their lives, heightening their sensitivity to naturally occurring positive experiences, such as enjoying a beautiful sunset or the special feeling of closeness with a loved one.
Right now, Garland’s technique is being tested in a preliminary brain imaging trial as a way to help smokers quit the habit.
Plans for further testing include working with those who have mental health problems or are addicted to alcohol. If these trials are successful, the research team plans to work with active-duty soldiers suffering with chronic pain while also conducting a larger trial among the general population.
Garland and his team envision the technique as something that could be prescribed by doctors as an addition to traditional pain management methods.