Multiple Sclerosis: Overcoming Pain
Real World Health Care continues our series on pain management by speaking with Dawn Ehde, PhD, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Dr. Ehde serves as a clinical psychologist and professor at UW. She conducts research evaluating the efficacy of various behavioral, exercise, and pharmacological interventions for chronic pain, depression, and/or fatigue in adults with multiple sclerosis (MS) and other acquired neurological conditions.
Dr. Ehde discusses some of her recent clinical and research work on cognitive-behavioral interventions for MS-related pain.
Living with MS and Pain
Real World Health Care: In 2015, you published an article: Utilization and Patients’ Perceptions of the Effectiveness of Pain Treatments in Multiple Sclerosis. Can you summarize the key results of your study and the implications for patients with MS?
Dawn Ehde: We conducted this survey to learn more about pain management from the perspective of people living with MS and pain. We found that people with MS and pain try a lot of different treatments to manage pain, but few treatments provide adequate pain relief.
Nonprescription medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories and physical modalities such as massage were some of the most common methods used. Many use more than one treatment to manage pain. Some of the treatments that individuals rated as most helpful, such as hypnosis, were infrequently used. In fact, we found that very few people surveyed had tried or accessed behavioral pain treatments such as training in mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavioral self-management, or self-hypnosis. This was the case even though there is good evidence that these types of treatments are beneficial to many people with chronic pain, including MS, and have few or no negative side effects. This study highlighted for me the need to improve access to these types of non-pharmacological pain management.
Integrated Care Approach
RWHC: Are you currently involved in any other research relating to pain management in MS patients?
DE: We have several studies in various stages that address pain management in MS. We recently published a study that found that an eight-session telephone-delivered self-management intervention was effective in reducing pain (both its severity and its interference with activities) and fatigue. It also was effective in improving mood, quality of life, and resilience. The benefits were maintained at 6- and 12-month follow ups. Patient satisfaction with the treatment was high as well.
The study I am most excited about is the MS Care study, which is a comparative effectiveness trial that evaluated the benefits of an integrated care approach to pain and depression management in the clinic called “collaborative care.” The MS version, called “MS Care,” aims to improve the quality of pain care in the clinic by adding an MS Care manager to coordinate care, deliver brief behavioral treatments, initiate or adjust other medical treatments, and ensure patients do not slip through the cracks. We also offer patients the choice of getting their care management by phone or in person. Seventy-five percent chose the phone. We found that patients with chronic pain and/or depression randomly assigned to MS Care had significantly improved pain and depression symptoms, including less severe pain, less interference, less disability, and less fatigue. Additional details on the results are available at http://www.uwmscare.org/background.
Opportunities in MS Pain Research
RWHC: What are some of the biggest challenges facing researchers who are studying pain management in MS patients? How can those challenges be overcome?
DE: I actually see a lot of opportunities as an MS pain researcher. The MS community is interested in improving pain management and supporting research in this area. For example, the National MS Society has named pain as one of its research priorities. We also often find people with MS are willing participants in our research, both as participants as well as stakeholders who guide us in our research. For example, we used stakeholders to guide our MS Care study. At times, we have had to work hard to convince potential funders that pain is an issue that warrants funding and study, but that has improved in the time that I’ve been doing research. We have come a long way since I first started in this area, when pain was not always recognized as an important problem deserving attention in MS.
Challenges for MS Clinicians
RWHC: What are some of the biggest challenges facing clinicians who are treating MS patients with pain management problems?
DE: MS presents many different symptoms to manage, and thus both patients and clinicians have a lot to discuss and manage in the typical clinic appointment. One challenge is that pain management is often only one of several issues being addressed. As such, it may be difficult to fully manage a complex issue like chronic pain. I think these challenges may be overcome by rethinking how we approach and deliver pain care. We need to look at harnessing technology — including telehealth technologies — to improve care. We also need to empower patients and the MS community to recognize that pain management is something that requires active self-management and multimodal strategies.
Pain Management Therapies
RWHC: What do you see as the most promising pharmaceutical therapies for treating pain in MS patients? What are the caveats that must be understood by clinicians when prescribing such therapies?
DE: As a psychologist, I’m less able to speak to promising pharmaceutical therapies on the horizon. However, I think there are promising practices for how we deliver pain care, including medications and other rehabilitation interventions. We did manage medications in our MS Care study, and our goal within that was to promote the appropriate and effective use of pain medications and other medications that can benefit pain management, such as some of the antidepressants which have analgesic benefits. We know from our research that too often, patients get started on a treatment, perhaps at a “low dose,” and for whatever reason, they don’t have adequate follow up to adjust, intensify, or change treatment plan. In the MS Care study, we closely and quickly followed patients’ pain and adjusted treatments to optimize their benefits or switched treatments if needed. We also know that physical activity — whether it is physical therapy or encouraging physical activity — benefits people with MS and likely helps with pain management.
RWHC: Do you see a role for non-pharmaceutical pain management therapies in treating pain in patients with MS?
DE: Certainly. This is where I’ve spent most of my energy, not only because I am a psychologist, but also because many people with MS want to use non-pharmacological therapies and strategies. The people with MS I know and our stakeholders are eager to advance our understanding and use of non-pharmacological treatments such as mindfulness meditation, relaxation, and cognitive behavioral coping skills.
Partnering with Patients
RWHC: What initially got you interested in this field? What continues to inspire you?
DE: I have had family and friends with MS, and thus was drawn to learning more about MS. I started out conducting chronic pain research in people where chronic pain such as headaches was the primary problem. When I started working with patients with MS clinically, I was struck by how little we knew about MS pain management and how people with MS pain were not accessing care we knew was helpful in other pain populations.
I’ve been inspired and continue to be inspired by the people with MS whom we’ve partnered with to conduct our research. Our best research has resulted from partnering with people living with MS. They’ve also taught me a lot about resiliency. Although MS can present many challenges like pain, many people with MS and pain live full, meaningful and happy lives.
I also have been fortunate to have training grants from the National MS Society, which have allowed me to train postdoctoral fellows in MS and rehabilitation research. They represent the next generation of clinical researchers in pain and symptom management in MS.