More than 20 percent of American adults suffer from chronic pain. And as many as one in four of those prescribed opioids to manage that pain go on to misuse – or abuse – them, often with devastating consequences. Patients afflicted by both chronic pain and opioid addiction are especially difficult to treat, according to Eric Garland, PhD, Director of the University of Utah’s Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development, because opioid overuse increases pain sensitivity, and pain promotes relapse among those being treated for addiction.
A new study, however, shows that a mindfulness-based therapy can successfully tackle both problems at once, pointing to a tool that could potentially help in fighting the opioid crisis. “This is the first large-scale clinical trial to show that any psychological intervention can reduce opioid misuse and chronic pain for the long term,” says Garland, lead author of the study, published February 28th in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Garland’s study focused on 250 adults who had received opioid therapy for chronic pain for 90 days or longer, randomly assigning them to eight weeks of either a standard psychotherapy support group or Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) therapy, which combines mindfulness training, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and positive psychology. Nine months after getting these treatments in primary care settings, 45 percent of patients in the MORE group were no longer misusing opioids, compared to 24 percent of those in group therapy. In fact, about a third of the patients in the MORE group were able to cut their opioid dose in half or reduce it even further.
Patients treated with MORE also experienced more significant pain relief than those in support groups, according to Garland. Conventional approaches to treating opioid addiction include 12-step programs and medically-assisted treatment using drugs like methadone and Suboxone, sometimes coupled with support groups. But patients with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) – the official diagnosis for opioid addiction – have high relapse rates following treatment, especially if they have chronic pain.
While medically-assisted treatments help to control drug cravings, they do nothing to control chronic pain, which is where psychological therapies like MORE come in.
“For patients suffering from moderate pain and OUD, the relapse rate is three times higher than in patients without chronic pain; for those with severe chronic pain, the relapse rate is five times higher,” says Amy Wachholtz, PhD, Director of Clinical Health Psychology and associate professor at University of Colorado in Denver. “So if we don’t treat the chronic pain along with the OUD addiction simultaneously, we are setting patients up for failure.”
Unfortunately, notes Garland, the standard of care for patients with chronic pain who are misusing their prescribed painkillers is “woefully inadequate.” Many patients don’t meet the criteria for OUD, he says, but instead fall into a gray zone somewhere between legitimate opioid use and full-blown addiction. And while medically-assisted treatments help to control drug cravings, they do nothing to control chronic pain, which is where psychological therapies like MORE come in. But behavioral therapies are often not available in primary care settings, and even when clinicians do refer patients to behavioral health providers, they often prescribe CBT. A large scale study last year showed that CBT – without the added components of mindfulness training and positive psychology – reduced pain but not opioid misuse.
Psychotherapist Eric Garland teaches mindfulness.
University of Utah
Reward Circuitry Rewired
Opioids are highly physiologically addictive. Repeated and high-dose drug use causes the brain to become hypersensitive to stress, pain, and drug-related cues, such as the sight of one’s pill bottle, says Garland, while at the same time becoming increasingly insensitive to natural pleasures. “As an individual becomes more and more dependent on the opioids just to feel okay, they feel less able to extract a healthy sense of joy, pleasure and meaning out of everyday life,” he explains. “This drives them to take higher and higher doses of the opioid to maintain a dwindling sense of well-being.”
The changes are not just psychological: Chronic opioid use actually causes changes in the brain’s reward circuitry. “You can see on brain imaging,” says Garland. “The brain’s reward circuitry becomes more responsive when a person is viewing opioid related images than when they are viewing images of smiling babies, lovers holding hands, or sunsets over the beach.” MORE, he says, teaches “savoring” – a tenet of positive psychology – as a means of restructuring the reward processes in the brain so the patient becomes sensitive to pleasure from natural, healthy rewards, decreasing cravings for drug-related rewards.
Mindfulness and Addiction
Mindfulness, a form of meditation that teaches people to observe their feelings and sensations without judgement, has been increasingly applied to the treatment of addiction. By observing their pain and cravings objectively, for example, patients gain increased awareness of their responses to pain and their habits of opioid use. “They learn how to be with discomfort, whether emotional or physical, in a more compassionate way,” says Sarah Bowen, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Pacific University in Oregon. “And if your mind gives you a message like ‘Oh, I can’t handle that,’ to recognize that that’s a thought that might not be true.”
Bowen’s research is focused on Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, which addresses the cravings associated with addiction. She has patients practice what she calls “urge surfing”: riding out a craving or urge rather than relying on a substance for immediate relief. “Craving will happen, so rather than fighting it, we look at understanding it better,” she says.
MORE differs from other forms of mindfulness-based therapy in that it integrates reappraisal and savoring training. Reappraisal is a technique often used in CBT in which patients learn to change negative thought patterns in order to reduce their emotional impact, while savoring helps to restructure the reward processes in the brain.
Mindfulness training not only helps patients to understand and gain control over their behavior in response to cravings and triggers like pain, says Garland, but also provides a means of pain relief. “We use mindfulness to zoom into pain and break it down into its subcomponents – feelings of heat or tightness or tingling – which reduces the impact that negative emotions have on pain processing in the brain.”
Eric Garland examines brain waves.
University of Utah
As the dangers of opioid addiction have become increasingly evident, some scientists are developing less addictive, non-opioid painkillers, but more trials are needed. Meanwhile, behavioral approaches to chronic pain relief have continued to gain traction, and researchers like Garland are probing the possibilities of integrative treatments to treat the addiction itself. Given that the number of people suffering from chronic pain and OUD have reached new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Wachholtz, new treatment alternatives for patients caught in the relentless cycle of chronic pain and opioid misuse are sorely needed. “We’re trying to refine the techniques,” she says, “but we’re starting to realize just how powerful some of these mind-body interventions can be.”