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Fitness apps can help people suffering from chronic pain

A new study says that health and fitness apps can help people suffering from chronic pain to better manage their condition

Fitness apps can be used to manage chronic pain.
Fitness apps can be used to manage chronic pain. (Istockphoto)

Health apps have become a popular tool to track fitness, weight loss, sleep, and even menstrual cycles, and now another benefit of using digital applications has come to light.

According to a new study, digital solutions including remote monitoring can help chronic pain sufferers manage their pain and reduce the probability of misuse of prescription opioids.

The findings of the study were published in the Journal of Medical Information Research Mhealth Uhealth.

For chronic pain sufferers, an app may be just the tool they need to manage their pain. In a UHN-led study that used the app called 'Manage My Pain' enrolled patients saw clinically significant reductions in key areas that drive increased medical needs, potential abuse of prescription opioids, and of course, pain.

For the first time, an app has been shown to reduce key symptoms of chronic pain. A UHN-led study evaluated the impact of the digital health solution app developed by ManagingLife, on patients seen at the Iroquois Falls Family Health Team, and the Toronto Western and Toronto General Hospitals.

The study showed patients who used the MMP app saw a clinically significant reduction in anxiety and pain catastrophizing, two key areas that drive increased medical needs and potential abuse of prescription opioids.

"Manage My Pain has helped our patients tell their story," said Dr Hance Clarke, Director Pain Services, Medical Director of The Pain Research Unit, Toronto General Hospital, UHN.

Dr Clarke added, "As a result, this has empowered them to engage in discussions that enabled us to come up with patient-centred treatment plans to help manage their pain."

246 participants with chronic pain were enrolled in the study and more than 70 per cent of the group agreed to use the app along with their medication, psychological therapy, and physiotherapy, the other 30 per cent were the control group.

The app allowed them to track their pain, create reports that facilitated better communication with their care providers, and through a virtual portal, give clinicians the ability to remotely monitor their patients and use advanced analytics to spot any negative trends weeks and months in advance.

"Prior to Manage My Pain, our clinic was dependent on paper-based questionnaires to understand a patient's pain experience and response to treatment," said Dr Anuj Bhatia, Site Director, Anesthesia - Interventional Pain Service, Toronto Western Hospital, UHN.

Dr Bhatia added, "The app allows us to capture even more information than we had previously while doing so digitally and remotely. The app also allowed us to study trends in the intensity of pain and its impact on the patients' lives."

Patients were prompted daily to record their reflections in the app. In less than a minute, they could input the activities they were able to accomplish and rate the pain they felt. In return, they received charts and graphs that highlighted patterns and trends that could increase their self-awareness, and provide insight into triggers and interventions.

For the rural patients involved in this study, the benefits of MMP were remarkably clear from the beginning. Lacking a speciality pain centre, patients in Iroquois Falls must rely on their primary caregivers and the app made the communication between the patient-clinician easier and more productive.

"Chronic pain isn't like a broken arm," said Dr Auri Bruno-Petrina, rural Physician, Iroquois Falls.

Dr Bruno-Petrina noted, "It can be invisible to the naked eye, so people who suffer from it can find it very frustrating to explain how they are feeling and how much it is impacting their lives. This app strengthened my ability to help my patients because we had more nuanced data and we could really dig into the details."

For both rural and urban patients suffering from chronic pain, the use of MMP encouraged tracking and reflecting, both of which are important components of most self-management programs. The ease of adoption also presents a positive opportunity for engaging with patients during significant challenges like the one presented by the covid-19 pandemic.

"The covid-19 pandemic has shown us how essential it is for patients to have a role in managing healthcare conditions," said Dr Clarke.

Dr Clarke concluded, "Digital tools like Manage My Pain are a great way to empower self-management in patients, which is one of the hallmarks of successful clinical care."

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