President and CEO of Lucid Lane. Software technology expert and digital health advocate.
About 20% of adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. Unfortunately, for those millions of people, doctors and researchers are learning that painkillers — from powerful opioids to over-the-counter medications like aspirin or ibuprofen — may not actually reduce certain types of chronic pain or improve quality of life. Some painkillers, especially opioids, can also be highly addictive.
Some treatments for chronic pain begin by addressing the patient’s mental state — their beliefs about pain and the way those beliefs affect their behaviors. New technologies, including some powered by artificial intelligence, may also help make treatments for chronic pain more effective, accessible and affordable. As the president and CEO of a company that provides telehealth to people with pain and substance use issues, here are five things I believe AI and tech tools can do for chronic pain sufferers.
1. Track Symptoms As They Happen
At regular appointments with a doctor or therapist, a chronic pain patient must reconstruct how they’ve been feeling over the past few days or weeks. Tracking symptoms via mobile app is convenient for patients and can be more accurate than traditional manual methods. The Symple App is a broad-based tool to track physical symptoms as well as sleep and energy levels and then graph the resulting trends.
Tracking symptoms and daily activities in a systematic way helps patients and their doctors to get a clearer picture of their pain and start to identify patterns. For example, patients may overextend themselves on good days and then take three or four days to recover. Daily symptom tracking can help patients understand these patterns and learn to pace themselves better. AI-fueled symptom trackers can flag less-obvious patterns that may be exacerbating pain.
2. Identify Environmental Factors That Affect Pain Levels
Many apps I’ve seen designed for chronic pain sufferers also track diet, weather, physical activity, mental health, life events, medication usage, sleep and other factors that may affect pain levels. Symple enables such complex symptom tracking. As a tool tailored to pain sufferers specifically, PainScale monitors and tracks pain triggers and helps patients and medical providers alike to determine which coping techniques are helping the most. Imagine trying to remember everything you ate over the past two weeks while sitting in a doctor’s office. It can be difficult for patients to reconstruct these kinds of complex patterns in retrospect. In-the-moment tracking can help patients and their doctors determine which environmental factors impact pain levels so they can intervene accordingly.
3. Catch Early Warning Signs Of Depression And Anxiety
Research suggests that a patient’s mental state and their physical pain levels are deeply intertwined. A patient who believes they’ll never get better may be less motivated to stay active, even if increased physical activity might reduce their pain. Patients who tend to “catastrophize” may experience delayed recovery. In another report, researchers found that decreased catastrophizing in patients with lower back pain may improve outcomes.
New AI-enabled tools can help therapists monitor patients’ mental health and spot warning signs of more serious conditions. For example, Lucid Lane therapists use an AI-based tool called Ellipsis (provided to our teams for free as a pilot program) that prompts patients to answer questions about emotional health symptoms like depression and anxiety. The tool captures a brief voice sample, and an algorithm analyzes the patient’s voice for signs of depression or anxiety. This tool helps our therapists monitor patients daily, prompts them to reach out when patients are in trouble and creates more data points for therapists to discuss with patients during appointments. Even when an appointment falls on a good day, a therapist equipped with data from an app like this can say, “It looks like you were struggling on Tuesday. What do you think was going on?”
4. Walk Patients Through Alternative Therapies
Many pain medications may be ineffective for treating certain types of chronic pain and can be actively harmful if patients become dependent on medication. Today, one treatment for chronic pain is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an intervention in which a therapist works with a patient to help change unhelpful thought patterns and develop coping strategies. Some researchers are working to develop AI-based CBT that could serve as a supplement or even alternative to traditional CBT to help make this treatment more accessible and cost-effective.
Here and now, many apps guide patients through other alternative therapies, including mindfulness, yoga, music therapy and even acupressure. For instance, the CBT-i Coach app from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs uses CBT to address insomnia and sleep problems. It combines a sleep tracker with guided techniques focused on steps such as creating new sleep habits, winding down and preventing insomnia in the future. Apps like these could help users manage anxiety, which studies suggest may be a major component of sleep problems, through thought replacement and cognitive restructuring, as well as guided imagery, body scans, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation and breathing tools.
5. Connect Patients To Peers Who Can Offer Support
Therapists can’t be on call 24/7, but fellow chronic pain patients can. Chronic pain patients can connect with peers via peer-support apps like ChatSpace, TalkLife, Unmasked (for college students) and Therapeer. (Full disclosure: I am an investor in ChatSpace, as is Lucid Lane’s chief medical advisor.) When a patient is struggling with pain, depression or anxiety at 3 a.m., a peer may be able to connect and provide in-the-moment support. Technologies like these can bridge the crucial gaps between appointments.
Chronic pain can be a bewildering and life-altering problem. New technology, including AI-enabled tools, can help patients navigate the maze of chronic pain, map out their symptoms, identify and fix patterns, access alternative treatments and get the support they need to improve their quality of life.
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