Pain relief management is an increasing problem. The incidence of chronic medical conditions characterized by pain has risen with a larger elderly population. Medication addiction has also risen. According to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were over 2.1 million people in the United States with substance use disorders related to prescription opioids in 2012. The Institute also reports that “the number of unintentional overdose deaths from prescription pain relievers has soared in the United States, more than quadrupling since 1999.” With these shocking statistics on prescription opiate abuse, people suffering from chronic pain, such as those with fibromyalgia, need alternative methods to help manage their condition and to hopefully reduce the need for prescription medications.
Arizona State University Psychologist Dr. Mary Davis studies pain and is interested in alternatives or add-ons to medication that can help reduce pain. She focuses on how emotional regulation can impact health and on developing methods that can assist people in regulating their emotions. The three main methods studied include psychoeducation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mindfulness-based mediation.
Psychoeducation intends to inform people who are in pain about their condition, knowing where it comes from and understanding how sleep and nutrition can impact pain. Knowledge of how pain occurs may empower people to manage pain better, according to Dr. Davis. It could also enable them to make life choices, such as increasing exercise or changing their nutritional habits, that could reduce their experience of pain.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a well-established method of psychotherapy. It involves counteracting negative and unrealistic thoughts by replacing them with more realistic ones. This often involves sessions with a psychotherapist, including homework activities.
Mindfulness-based meditation emerges from Eastern practices, including Zen Buddhism. During mindfulness practice, a person learns to experience the moment, to examine sensations and to release judgement. It often results in a sense of relaxation that can reduce pain.
Davis and her colleagues recently published a study examining the effect of depression on chronic pain in 110 women with fibromyalgia and/or osteoarthritis who had just undergone a stressful life event due to relationship problems. The overall finding of the study was that elevated mood after a stressful event decreases the experience of pain, specifically in people suffering from clinical depression.
The take-away from this study is that depression can influence pain, and interventions to alleviate depression are important for people suffering from chronic illness, not only to increase their emotional state but also to reduce their experience of pain.
Davis and her laboratory continue to research stress and pain management through several projects. These include the “gains in fibromyalgia treatment study” (GIFT Study), and the study of mindfulness-based stress reduction for work-related stress.