A New Psychotherapeutic 'Gold Standard' for Chronic Pain? (2024)

A single course of treatment with emotional awareness and expression therapy (EAET) was associated with a significantly greater reduction in chronic pain severity than cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the current psychotherapeutic gold standard, a new study suggested.

Two thirds of the patients who received EAET reported at least a 30% reduction in pain compared with 17% of those who received CBT. The randomized clinical trial also showed that individuals with depression and anxiety responded more favorably to EAET, a novel finding.

The study is one of only a few to directly compare EAET with CBT.

"Most people with chronic pain don't consider psychotherapy at all," study investigator Brandon C. Yarns, MD, a staff psychiatrist at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, and clinical professor of health sciences at the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, UCLA Health, told Medscape Medical News.

Although patients were allowed to continue medication for pain and other comorbidities during the study, those who received EAET "had larger improvements in pain, depression, and anxiety," Yarns said. "That suggests that the effect was due to the EAET."

The findings were published online on June 13 in JAMA Network Open.

'Gold Standard'

EAET was first used in the early 2010s. In the therapy, patients are asked to recall a difficult or traumatic memory, engage in experiencing how the related emotions feel in the body, express those feelings in words, and release or let them go. They are taught that the brain's perception of pain is strongly influenced by the evasion of grief, fear, rage, or guilt, Yarns said.

This contrasts with CBT — considered the current gold standard for chronic pain — which teaches patients to improve the ability to tolerate pain though guided imagery, muscle relaxation, and other exercises and to adapt their thinking to change how they think about pain.

Although prior studies suggested EAET is effective in reducing pain in fibromyalgia and chronic musculoskeletal, pelvic, and head pain, most included primarily younger, female patients.

The research is the "first full-scale evaluation of EAET, to our knowledge, in a medically or psychiatrically complex, racially and ethnically diverse, older sample comprising predominantly men," investigators wrote.

The trial enrolled 126 veterans (92% men; 55% Black or African American) aged 60-95 years with at least 3 months of musculoskeletal pain. More than two thirds of patients had a psychiatric diagnosis, with about one third having posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Almost all had back pain, and many had pain in multiple locations.

All services were delivered in-person at the US Department of Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Los Angeles. Half underwent CBT, while the other half received EAET.

Each patient had one 90-minute individual session and eight additional 90-minute group sessions.

Patients were asked to rate their pain using a 0-10 scale in the Brief Pain Inventory (BPI) before starting treatment, at the end of the nine sessions (at week 10), and 6 months after the sessions ended. Baseline BPI score for both groups was a mean of around 6.

Post-treatment, people in the EAET vs CBT group had a mean two-point reduction vs 0.60 reduction, respectively, on the BPI scale. A clinically significant reduction in pain — defined as ≥ 30% decrease — was reported in 63% of EAET patients vs 17% of CBT patients (odds ratio [OR], 21.54; P < .001).

At 6 months, the mean reduction was 1.2 for the EAET group compared with 0.25 for the CBT group, and 40% of the EAET group reported a clinically significant reduction in pain.

A little more than a third (35%) of veterans receiving EAET reported at least a 50% reduction in pain at 10 weeks compared with 7% of those receiving CBT. At 6 months, 16% of the EAET arm reported a halving of their pain.

EAET was also superior to CBT in reducing anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms at the 10-week mark.

More Work Needed

In an accompanying editorial, Matthias Karst, MD, PhD, a clinician with the Pain Clinic, Hannover Medical School, in Hannover, Germany, noted that EAET's effects "are significantly superior to those of CBT in almost all dimensions, even after 6 months."

EAET "assigns a special place to the integration of the body into the emotional experience," he wrote.

The study demonstrated that "the evocation and expression of emotions is superior to the mere cognitive discussion of these emotions in therapy of patients with chronic pain."

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, Traci J. Speed, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and an attending psychiatrist of the Johns Hopkins Pain Treatment Program at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, called the study "ground-breaking" because it showed effectiveness in people with high rates of PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

"It is a little bit surprising how impressive the study outcomes are in terms of maintaining the effects at the end of the treatment and sustaining some of the effects on pain sensitivity even at the 6-month follow-up," said Speed, who was not part of the study.

However, she continued, "I don't think it changes the current standard of practice yet. CBT has decades of research and evidence that it is effective for chronic pain and that will I think continue to be the standard of care."

Although EAET is in its infancy, chronic pain experts are interested in learning more about the therapy, Speed added.

"It blends well with the current techniques and extends the current gold standard treatment approaches," she said. "We are starting to really appreciate the role that emotions play in pain sensitivity."

Both Karst and Speed noted that more study is needed to determine the sustainability of treatment effects.

Yarns agreed. "We need more research on what the appropriate dose is and perhaps how one might go about personalizing that for the patient," he said.

The study was funded by a career development award to Yarns from the VA Clinical Science Research and Development Service. Yarns reported receiving grants from the US Department of Veterans Affairs during the study. Other authors' disclosures are in the original article. Speed reported no conflicts.

Alicia Ault is a Saint Petersburg, Florida-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA and Smithsonian.com. You can find her on X: @aliciaault.

A New Psychotherapeutic 'Gold Standard' for Chronic Pain? (2024)


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