Chronic pain affects millions, interfering with daily life and increasing the risk of taking opioids. Digital help with an app for chronic pain can lessen pain and opioid usage.
It’s not surprising if you, or someone you know, suffers from chronic pain. It’s a common health problem, affecting 20 percent of U.S. adults, according to a Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. Chronic pain runs the gamut from annoying, but not disabling, discomfort several days of the week to near constant, high-impact pain that limits the ability to work and hampers overall quality of life.
Surgery or other medical care can heal some chronic pain. Sometimes long-lasting pain simply improves over time. But that’s not the case for millions of chronic pain sufferers. Instead, depending on a person’s individual diagnosis and condition, managing ongoing pain typically involves physical therapy, massage, behavior modification, and prescription pain medications like opioids, which can lead to addiction and abuse, the CDC notes. But app-based digital solutions may offer non-drug approaches to pain management, helping not only to relieve pain in many people but also to reduce or stopopioid use.
Exploring non-drug digital solutions for chronic pain sufferers
The National institutes of Health is actively pursuing research into ways to manage chronic pain without opioids. One of the ways technology may help is by using apps, easily accessible through smartphones, to help pain sufferers cope and hopefully improve their condition, without heavy (or any) reliance on drugs.
In fact, the National Pain Foundation lists 10 apps currently available commercially that offer tips on tracking pain (so users can note what helps or worsens their condition) and do-it-yourself relaxation and meditation techniques aimed at relieving pain-linked anxiety and depression.
There was little research, however, to whether using digital apps can actually provide physiological and lasting help to chronic pain sufferers — until now.
For the first time, a study has produced evidence showing an app specifically developed to help pain sufferers through digital technology in multiple ways — including allowing doctors to monitor their patients’ condition remotely — can reduce key symptoms of chronic pain and help fight opioid misuse.
Evidence an app for chronic pain can help
Researchers at Canada’s United Health Network (UHN) evaluated the impact of the Manage My Pain(MMP) app, developed by ManagingLife, a Toronto-based company developing digital pain management platforms for patients and doctors. The goal was to document whether the app could help hundreds of chronic pain patients treated at Iroquois Falls Family Health Team and the Toronto Western and Toronto General hospitals.
The app provided a way for the research subjects to track their pain and easily create reports, making communication with their doctors about symptoms easier. For example, the pain patient volunteers were prompted daily via the MMP app to note any activities they accomplished and to rate the amount of pain they felt, a process taking them less than a minute.
In return, the patients quickly received charts and graphs via the app, showing patterns and trends in their pain level. This, the researchers explained, helped increase the pain sufferers’ self-awareness , providing them with insight into what intensity of pain was triggered and when it occurred — and what interventions helped.
What’s more, doctors remotely monitored their patients through a patient portal and, using advanced analytics, were able to identify any negative trends weeks and months in advance of any worsening of patients’ conditions, opening the door to intervene with changes in treatment, if necessary.
The results of the study, published in the biomedical applications journal JMIR mHealth, found most patients who used the MMP app saw improvements in their ability to manage their pain; there was a decrease in opioid drug use, too.
The researchers also noted the chronic pain sufferers in the study experienced a significant reduction in anxiety and pain catastrophizing, a cascade of negative thoughts and exaggerated emotional responses to actual or anticipated pain. These two related psychological factors are known to drive increased medical needs and raise the risk of prescription opioid misuse and addiction.
Bottom line? Digital solutions can help pain and reduce opioid misuse
The app was especially beneficial for rural patients involved in the study who lived in Iroquois Falls, where there are no special pain centers. It made communication with their primary care doctor easier and more productive, the study noted.
“Chronic pain isn’t like a broken arm. It can be invisible to the naked eye, so people who suffer from it can find it very frustrating to explain how they are feeling and how much it is impacting their lives,” said Auri Bruno-Petrina, MD, an Iroquois Falls doctor who treats rural patients and was involved in the MMP app research. “The app strengthened my ability to help my patients because we had more nuanced data and we could really dig into the details.”
Both the rural and urban chronic pain patients who participated in the study easily adapted to using the app. The researchers noted the digital solutions the technology provided not only encouraged better self-management of the pain sufferers’ symptoms but also suggests this technology could be important for communicating remotely with patients during times of significant healthcare challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Manage My Pain (the MMP app) has helped our patients tell their story. As a result, this has empowered them to engage in discussions that enable us to come up with patient-centered treatment plans to help manage their pain,” explained Hance Clarke ,MD, PhD, director of Pain Services and Medical Director of Toronto General Hospital’s Pain Research Unit.
June 02, 2021
Janet O’Dell, RN