Counseling and Behavioral Therapy Help Vets in Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

An innovative two-step program that combines analgesics with deep breathing, relaxation techniques and counseling significantly reduced pain levels in U.S. military veterans who suffer from chronic pain, according to a new study at a VA Medical Center.

Researchers at the Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, the Regenstrief Institute and the Indiana University School of Medicine studied 241 veterans who returned from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Findings from the ESCAPE trial -- short for Evaluation of Stepped Care for Chronic Pain – are being published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

It is a critical health issue among veterans, many of whom had multiple, often lengthy deployments. Many have significant long-term pain. We know that medications alone are only modestly successful in helping them; current pain treatments haven't made much of a dent,” said Matthew Blair, MD, the study’s lead investigator and an associate professor of medicine at Indiana University.

A recent study found that nearly half of the American soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan return home to the U.S. in chronic pain, and about one in seven were using opioid pain relievers. Although pain is a common condition, researchers say no intervention studies had been conducted on the best ways to treat chronic pain in these veterans.

“The absence of studies is concerning because chronic pain may prove even more disabling in veterans of recent conflicts than in veterans of previous eras owing to the high combat intensity,” said Bair, who served for eight years as a U.S. Army physician.

The veterans in the ESCAPE study suffered from moderate to severe chronic pain in the back, knee, neck or shoulder for at least three months. Veterans with substance or abuse problems were excluded from the study, as were those with suicidal thoughts, active psychosis or schizophrenia.

In the first phase of ESCAPE, patients were given 12 weeks of pain medication, ranging from acetaminophen to opioids. Because analgesics may not relieve pain sufficiently when used alone, the veterans were educated about self-management strategies such as goal setting, problem solving, deep breathing and relaxation techniques. Patients were also encouraged to minimize bed rest, return to normal activities, and perform stretching and strengthening exercises.

Step two involved 12 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy that included psychological counseling for both pain and depression. Nurse care managers consulted with veterans over the telephone, helping them counter negative thoughts – such as helping them understand that while they may not be able to perform the same physical activities they enjoyed before deployment, a substitute activity like swimming might be achievable and decrease their pain.

Those who received the two-step ESCAPE program saw improvement in their function and a decrease in pain severity and pain interference -- how pain interferes with their mood, physical activity, work, relationships, sleep and enjoyment of life.

“The decrease in pain severity and 30 percent improvement in pain-related disability we achieved in the ESCAPE study are clinically significant, and we found that improvement lasted for at least nine months," said Blair.

Researchers say the ESCAPE program could be duplicated to treat chronic pain at other VA medical centers and other large health care systems outside the VA. However, implementing the program in smaller community settings or in private settings may be challenging.

"This is an important, methodologically rigorous study that underscores the value of psychobehavioral treatment in chronic pain,” said Beth Darnall, PhD, a pain psychologist and author of Less Pain, Fewer Pills. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy and the use of relaxation strategies work exceedingly well within the context of a comprehensive pain management program, and when the techniques are used regularly.”

Darnall recommends the same techniques used in the VA study in her own private practice.

“It’s important for people to know that the results from psychobehavioral skills build over time.  In other words, use them daily and your results will unfold and strengthen over the course of weeks and months,” she wrote in an email to Pain News Network.