Study: Virtual Reality Can Relieve Severe Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Therapeutic virtual reality (VR) may finally be on the verge of going mainstream. For the first time, research has shown that VR can help relieve a variety of pain conditions and is most effective for severe chronic pain.

 "I believe that one day soon VR will be part of every doctor's tool kit for pain management," says Brennan Spiegel, MD, director of Health Service Research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Spiegel is lead author of a new study published in PLOS ONE, which looked at the effectiveness of VR in 120 hospitalized adult patients suffering from neurological, orthopedic, gastrointestinal or cancer pain. All of the patients were being treated with opioid medication and had a pain score of at least three on a 1 to 10 pain scale.

“There’s been decades of research testing VR in highly controlled environments — university laboratories, the psychology department and so on,” Brennan told MobiHealthNews. “This study is really letting VR free and seeing what happens. What I mean by that is it’s a pragmatic study where we didn’t want to control every single element of the study, but literally just see [what would happen] if we were to give it to a broad range of people in the hospital with pain; how would it do compared to a control condition already available in the hospital?”

Half of the patients were given VR goggles with a variety of relaxing and meditative experiences to choose from. They were advised to use the headsets three times a day for 10 minutes — and as needed for breakthrough pain – for three days.

The other participants were instructed to tune their hospital room TVs to a health and wellness channel that offered programs on guided-relaxation, yoga and meditation.

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Several times a day, nurses asked all the patients to rate their pain on the pain scale.

The study found that on-demand use of VR resulted in a small but statistically significant improvement in pain scores compared to the TV group, with patients in the VR group averaging 1.7 points lower on the pain scale. VR patients with the most severe baseline pain of 7 or more reduced their pain scores three points lower than the TV group.

"This is our largest and most ambitious VR study to date," Spiegel said. "Our results support previous research that VR can meaningfully reduce pain using a nonaddictive, drug-free treatment for people experience a range of different pain conditions."

In the previous study, patients who watched a 15-minute nature video had a 13% drop in their pain scores, while patients who played an animated game had a 24% decline.

Spiegel says the current study showed that VR can do more than just distract the mind from pain, but may even block pain signals from reaching the brain by overwhelming the brain with visual and audio stimulation.  

Several patients found VR so helpful in managing their pain that they now use it regularly at home. One of them is 70-year old Joseph Norris, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who suffers from chronic pain in his spine, back and hips. Norris started using VR six months ago, and today uses his VR headset once a week to help relax and distract. 

"VR is a tool I use to successfully divert attention away from my pain, and it helps me reinforce my breathing pattern," he said.

There remains a great deal of skepticism about VR, particularly among older patients. Spiegel and his colleagues evaluated nearly 600 patients for the study, but many chose not to participate.

“Patients expressed varying degrees of skepticism, fear, sense of vulnerability, concern regarding psychological consequences, or simply not wanting to be bothered by using the equipment. We believe it is important for the digital health community to recognize that despite the great promise of health technology, clinical realities can undermine expectations,” he wrote.    

Spiegel and his research team are currently involved in a study following patients using VR in their homes for 60 days.

Medicare to Cover Acupuncture in Pilot Program

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A week after a federal report documented a significant decline in opioid prescriptions among Medicare beneficiaries, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has taken a tentative step to cover acupuncture as an alternative treatment for chronic low back pain.

Under a CMS proposal, patients enrolled in clinical trials of acupuncture sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or in studies approved by CMS would be covered under Medicare’s Part D program. CMS has been collaborating with the NIH in studying acupuncture as a treatment of chronic low back pain in adults 65 years of age and older.

In a statement, CMS acknowledged that while “questions remain” about acupuncture’s effectiveness, interest in the therapy had grown in recent years as a non-drug alternative to opioids.  

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese form of treatment that involves the insertion of fine needles into various points on the body to alleviate pain and other symptoms.

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“Chronic low back pain impacts many Medicare patients and is a leading reason for opioid prescribing,” said CMS Principal Deputy Administrator of Operations and Policy Kimberly Brandt. “Today’s proposed decision would provide Medicare patients who suffer from chronic low back pain with access to a nonpharmacologic treatment option and could help reduce reliance on prescription opioids.”

Currently, acupuncture is not covered by Medicare. CMS is inviting public comment on the proposal to gather evidence and help determine if acupuncture is appropriate for low back pain. Comments will be accepted through August 14.

“Defeating our country’s epidemic of opioid addiction requires identifying all possible ways to treat the very real problem of chronic pain, and this proposal would provide patients with new options while expanding our scientific understanding of alternative approaches to pain.” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Spending on Opioids Peaked in 2015

Medicare Part D spending on opioid prescriptions has been falling for years. It peaked in 2015 at $4.2 billion and now stands at its lowest level since 2012, according to a report released last week by the HHS Office of Inspector General.

The decline in opioid prescriptions appears to be accelerating. Last year, 13.4 million Medicare beneficiaries received an opioid prescription, down from 14.1 million in 2017.

SOURCE: HHS OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL

SOURCE: HHS OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL

The Inspector General identified over 350,000 Medicare patients as receiving high amounts of opioids, with an average daily dose great than 120 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) for at least three months. The CDC opioid guideline recommends that daily doses not exceed 90 MME.  

The report highlighted the case of an unnamed Pennsylvania woman who received 10,728 oxycodone tablets and 570 fentanyl patches in 2018. Her average daily dose was 2,900 MME. She received all of her opioid prescriptions from a single physician.

The report said there were 198 prescribers who “warrant further scrutiny” because they ordered high doses of opioids for multiple patients.

“Although these opioids may be necessary for some patients, prescribing to an unusually high number of beneficiaries at serious risk raises concerns. It may indicate that beneficiaries are receiving poorly coordinated care and could be in danger of overdose or dependence,” the report found.  “Prescribing to an unusually high number of beneficiaries at serious risk could also indicate that the prescriber is ordering medically unnecessary drugs, which could be diverted for resale or recreational use.”

Under a new federal law, CMS is required to identify and warn “outlier prescribers of opioids” on an annual basis about their prescribing patterns. Medicare insurers could also require high-risk patients to use selected pharmacies or prescribers for their opioid prescriptions.

FDA Clears Ear Device for IBS Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cleared for marketing the first medical device to treat abdominal pain in patients 11-18 years of age with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The IB-Stim device is made by Innovative Health Solutions and is only available by prescription. It uses neuromodulation to stimulate cranial nerves around the ear to provide relief from IBS, a condition affecting the large intestines that causes abdominal pain and discomfort during bowel movements.

The battery powered device is placed behind the patient’s ear — much like a hearing aid — and emits low-frequency electrical pulses that disrupt pain signals. It is intended for use up to three consecutive weeks.  

“This device offers a safe option for treatment of adolescents experiencing pain from IBS through the use of mild nerve stimulation,” said Carlos Peña, PhD, director of the FDA’[s Office of Neurological and Physical Medicine Devices.

The FDA reviewed data from a placebo controlled study published in The Lancet that included 50 adolescent patients with IBS. During the study, patients were allowed to continue using medication to treat their abdominal pain. Most had failed to improve through the use of drugs.

IB-Stim treatment resulted in at least a 30% decrease in pain after three weeks in 52% of the treated patients, compared to 30% of patients who received the placebo. Six patients reported mild ear discomfort and three had an allergic reaction caused by an adhesive at the site of application.

IMAGE COURTESY OF INNOVATIVE HEALTH SOLUTIONS

IMAGE COURTESY OF INNOVATIVE HEALTH SOLUTIONS

Innovative Health Solutions is not disclosing any details about the potential cost of an IB-Stim or where it will be available.

“We are still working to finalize our pricing structure,” Ryan Kuhlman, National Director of Innovative Health Solutions, said in an email. “There are many factors that go into the final contract price with a hospital and will likely vary from hospital to hospital. We do want to make this treatment available and affordable as we work towards favorable insurance coverage.”  

The FDA reviewed the IB-Stim through a regulatory pathway for low- to moderate-risk medical devices. Clearance of the device creates a new regulatory classification, which means that similar devices for IBS may be cleared if they are substantially equivalent to an approved device. Similar ear devices have been cleared by the FDA to treat symptoms of opioid withdrawal and for use in acupuncture.

IBS is a group of symptoms that include chronic pain in the abdomen and changes in bowel movements, which may include diarrhea, constipation or both. A 2018 study found that hypnosis relieves pain in about a third of IBS patients.

The Hidden Benefits of Glucosamine

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Do you take glucosamine supplements to reduce joint pain and stiffness? You’re not alone if you do. According to a 2007 survey, nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults take glucosamine to prevent or treat pain from osteoarthritis, back pain and other conditions.

The evidence to support the use of glucosamine for joint pain is thin, but a large new study in The BMJ suggests regular use of the supplement can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Researchers at Tulane University analyzed 7 years of extensive health data for almost half a million adults aged 40 to 69 enrolled in the UK Biobank study. Those who regularly took glucosamine were about 15% less likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke.

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Glucosamine occurs naturally in the fluid around joints and plays an importantly role in building cartilage. Glucosamine is extracted from shellfish and is often combined in supplements with chondroitin, a similar substance that is also found in joints.

People who took glucosamine in the BMJ study were more likely to be women, older, more physically active, have healthier diets and take other supplements.

Over the course of seven years, 2.2% of those who did not use glucosamine had a heart attack or stroke, compared to 2.0% of people who did use glucosamine. People who used glucosamine were also less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke, 0.5% vs. 0.7% of those who didn’t use the supplement.

The difference doesn’t appear to be significant, but when adjusted for risk and other factors, it means that glucosamine users had a 22% lower risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.

For smokers, the benefits of regular glucosamine use were even greater. They had 37% less risk of having coronary heart disease compared to smokers who didn’t use the supplements.

Researchers didn’t establish the reason why glucosamine lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), but they believe the supplements help reduce inflammation – one of the main factors involved in the development of heart disease, as well as chronic pain.

“Several potential mechanisms could explain the observed protective relation between glucosamine use and CVD diseases. In the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) study, regular use of glucosamine was associated with a statistically significant reduction in C reactive protein concentrations, which is a marker for systemic inflammation,” researchers reported. “Other mechanisms might also be involved, and future investigations are needed to explore the functional roles of glucosamine in cardiovascular health.”

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) downplayed the study findings, pointing out the cardiovascular benefits of glucosamine are “quite small.”

“If you want to reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, it would be much better to concentrate on living a healthy lifestyle, rather than paying for glucosamine supplements,” the NHS said.

Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics and Chronic Pain

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The recent news that Denver has decriminalized “magic” mushrooms is the latest sign of growing interest in the use of psychedelics. Whether it’s microdosing mushrooms to stimulate the mind or using them to treat depression and chronic pain, psychedelic drugs are having a moment.

Magic mushrooms are any of roughly 200 different types of fungi that produce psilocybin, a hallucinogenic substance. Other psychedelics include LSD, DMT, ayahuasca and ibogaine. For reasons of chemistry and cultural baggage, DMT is generally avoided, LSD is used with extra caution and psilocybin is getting the most attention in clinical studies.

Preliminary research has found positive outcomes for psychedelic therapy in smoking cessation,  anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and refractory depression. And there are promising findings on psychedelics for cluster headaches and phantom limb pain.

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A 2015 review in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs reported that for patients with cluster headaches, psilocybin and other hallucinogens “were comparable to or more efficacious than most conventional medications.”  

In a 2006 Neurology review, researchers interviewed 53 cluster headache patients who used LSD or psilocybin. Most reported success in stopping cluster attacks and extending periods of remission.

And a 2018 Neurocase report described positive results for one patient with intractable phantom pain who combined psilocybin with mirror visual-feedback.

Obviously, these studies are very preliminary. Patient self-reports on drug use outside of clinical settings have limited value as evidence of efficacy. And case reports are by definition too small-scale to generalize from.

Fortunately, more clinical trials are underway for psilocybin and LSD. Last year the FDA approved a “landmark” psilocybin trial for treatment-resistant depression. And the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is also working to promote robust clinical research.

Of course, psychedelics are not without risks. As described in detail in the book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, patients need to be screened and monitored before, during and after psychedelic therapy.

Michael Pollan, author of “How to Change Your Mind”, told The New York Times that psilocybin has risks “both practical and psychological, and these can be serious.”

There are also risks of conflating the pop culture phenomenon of microdosing to clinical benefits obtained under medical supervision.

The “betterment of healthy people” through microdosing is enthusiastically endorsed in books like “A Really Good Day” by Ayelet Waldman. But a 2018 placebo-controlled study on LSD microdosing found no “robust changes” in perception, mental acitivty or concentration.

The microdosing trend could stymie serious research and bias public opinion about psychedelics — just as it did in the 1960’s.

The potential for psychedelic therapy in the management of chronic pain disorders is two-fold. First, psychedelics may represent a safe and effective way to manage otherwise intractable disorders like cluster headaches and phantom limb pain. Second, psychedelics may help address the depression, PTSD and anxiety that often contribute to or accompany such disorders.

It is to be hoped that more research on psychedelics comes quickly.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Mindfulness Is More Than Yoga

Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

For years I’ve used mindfulness meditation techniques to help with my chronic pain. So imagine my surprise last week as I was watching the Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force meeting and a practitioner on the panel said yoga and mindfulness are essentially the same thing.

I’ve never done yoga as part of my mindfulness meditation. But it made me start to wonder. Have I been doing mindfulness wrong for years?

A quick Google search showed me there are more than 25 mindfulness activities. Yoga was one of the items on the list, but not everyone doing yoga is doing it for mindfulness. Most use it for physical exercise.

Another practitioner on the task force said that mindfulness is not a treatment by itself and that it is typically done in conjunction with other modalities. I totally agree. There are many group and individual activities that use mindfulness to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and pain.

Mindfulness is just one form of self-care that I use do to help manage the symptoms of living with chronic conditions. By itself, mindfulness is not enough to sustain me, but in conjunction with other treatments I find it helpful.  

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I personally like individual mindfulness activities. Some of the activities are really short and some take up to an hour. Depending on what I need, I choose one that best suites me in the moment. Some of the activities I use for improving my life include virtual reality, self-compassion, reviewing my "I Am" list, meditation, 5 senses exercise, breathing exercises, music therapy and aroma therapy.

If you have trouble practicing mindfulness alone, one of the group activities is known as the FAKE plan, which involves about 8 members meeting for 2 hours every week for 12 weeks. The first portion of each session is devoted to a short mindfulness exercise and discussion, and each week is dedicated to a specific type of mindfulness exercise.

This is great for patients with social anxiety disorder but can also be helpful for others who want to work on their social skills through group mindfulness activities.  

Another mindfulness exercise that I found in my Google search (but have not yet tried) involves staring at a leaf for 5 minutes. A leaf is like a fingerprint or snowflake -- no two are the same. You can focus on the leaf’s colors, shape, texture and patterns. This type of activity brings you into the present and helps align your thoughts.

When I am not able to perform the physical or cognitive tasks I want to because of physical pain, I can get situational depression. For me, this is the best time to use my mindfulness activities. One study identified three ways mindfulness helps when you are depressed:

1.  Mindfulness helps people learn to be present in the moment, take stock of their thoughts and feelings, and choose an appropriate response rather than get caught up in negative emotions.

2.  Mindfulness teaches people that it’s okay to say “no” to others, which helps them balance their own lives and enhance self-confidence.

3.  Mindfulness allows people to be present with others, making them more attentive to their relationships, aware of their communication problems and more effective in relating to others.

These are important tools that can help chronic pain patients better manage their lives. Mindfulness activities help clear your mind of worry about the past or future and allow you to focus on the present.

Whether you are using mindfulness for anger, depression, chronic pain, anxiety or just for overall mental health -- it is important to keep an open mind. I know that is easier said than done when you are in severe pain. But the more you practice mindfulness the easier and more useful it becomes.

Can mindfulness cure you? No. Its purpose is to relax and help put life into perspective. If you are angry and distressed, that’s okay. I go there too sometimes. I use mindfulness to live in the moment and manage my emotions so that I am better able to manage my physical pain.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain FoundationShe is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics. More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

‘Space Pants’ Help Patients Walk Again

By Steve Weakley

Specially designed “space pants” worn by astronauts to regulate their body temperature are helping patients with Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) walk and exercise again with less pain.

More than eight million Americans suffer from PAD -- a narrowing of peripheral arteries in the legs that can cause severe pain and cramping after a short walk or even just climbing a flight of stairs.

“I have patients that have trouble going to their mailbox,” said Bruno Roseguini, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Purdue University. “These patients, in order to avoid that pain, become very inactive. So, this is a vicious cycle that leads to more impairment and more functional decline over time.”

PURDUE UNIVERSITY

PURDUE UNIVERSITY

To get PAD patients moving again, Roseguini and his research team turned to NASA and the elastic space pants worn by astronauts.  Woven into the pants is an elaborate tubing system that circulates warm water and helps keep the astronauts’ body temperatures normal in a weightless environment. 

Researchers modified the pants for a clinical study of PAD patients and found they were able to lower blood pressure and increase circulation in their legs. Patients who wore the pants for 90 minutes every day for eight weeks reported less pain and more mobility.

"It's like putting your legs in a hot tub without getting wet," says PAD patient Stephen Scott, who is now able to stand longer and walk longer distances. "It feels good."

“Based on our initial findings, it is conceivable that repeated exposures to heat therapy might enhance the ability of the arteries in the legs to vasodilate” Roseguini said. “What that means is there would be more blood flow and greater oxygen delivery to calf muscles during exercise, and we anticipate this will prolong the time they can walk before they feel pain.”

Roseguini explains how the pants work in the video below:

Roseguini calls physical exercise the “gold standard” for treating PAD, even if many patients choose other routes of relief.  Some have stents surgically inserted into their leg arteries, but they can narrow without exercise and may have to be replaced every few years. Medication and dietary changes can also help manage PAD, for which there is no cure.

“Exercise is painful for these patients and leg pain is one of the main reasons for why most of these patients do not adhere to structured exercise programs,” said Roseguini. “Heat therapy, on the other hand, is not painful. If anything, heat therapy might actually reduce leg pain, so the patients see that as a treatment they would potentially adhere to.”

Studies show heat therapy can also improve the health of blood vessels and help muscles recover after an injury.

“Heat therapy is a powerful tool for rehabilitation,” says Roseguini, who hopes to develop a portable battery-powered pump that PAD patients can wear without being tethered to an electric outlet. “I want the patients to be able to receive the therapy while walking and performing their daily living activities, such as going to the grocery store.”