DENVER -- An assistant psychology professor at the University of Colorado Denver has launched a study to help improve treatment for people experiencing chronic pain and opioid addiction.
“No treatments have yet proven effective for simultaneously addressing chronic pain and opioid addiction, and this is evident in the high rates of recidivism,” said Dr. Amy Wachholtz, who founded the Comorbid Opioid Addiction and Pain Lab at CU Denver.
“Our ultimate goal,” Wachholtz said, “is to introduce evidence-based treatment that helps break the cycle of relapse.”
Former Addict: More Study Needed
“I strongly support it,” said former heroin addict Blair Hubbard, who is currently a behavioral health specialist at UCHealth’s Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation at University of Colorado Hospital.
“I believe there is something to be said about being able to treat one’s addiction and pain at the same time,” Hubbard said, “so it’s not a long, drawn out process.”
Hubbard became addicted to pain medication after having her wisdom teeth pulled.
Her use escalated to heroin in 2006.
“I was sticking needles into my body multiple times just to avoid withdrawal," she said.
She lost part of a finger because of it.
“On the fourth or fifth day of using a needle, I hit an artery in my hand and it resulted in the loss of blood to my finger," she said, "which resulted in amputation.”
Hubbard said she tried to get help multiple times but was turned away because of medical complications.
“It was almost a blessing in disguise that I contracted sepsis,” she said. “I was hospitalized and underwent open heart surgery.”
The former addict is still dealing with the after effects of her long-term use.
She said when she ran out of room to shoot up on her arms, she switched to her legs, which developed open wounds that lasted for six years.
“I wrapped them with paper towels and shoe strings, whatever I could find,” she said.
Now, she is still undergoing skin grafts.
Hubbard kicked her addiction seven years ago and is now counseling others who are going through what she did.
“It’s like a passion to help others,” she said. “It gives me a purpose.”
Struggle to Find Treatment
Wachholtz told Denver7 that people who experience chronic pain leading to opioid addiction often struggle to find places for treatment.
She said pain clinics aren’t equipped to handle patients with addictions and treatment centers aren’t generally staffed with personnel trained to treat pain.
She said her lab will simultaneously treat chronic pain and opioid addiction.
“Our goal is to teach patients not only psychological mechanisms to help improve how they deal with pain and opioid addiction, but we’re actually teaching them techniques that change how their body responds when they experience a pain trigger,” she said.
Wachholtz said when addicts experience pain, they’re more aware of what’s happening with their body.
“Their heart rate goes up,” she said, “They start breathing more shallowly. They tend to have more muscle tension.”
She said all those things can increase a cycle that starts in the body and can eventually cause a pain flare.
Wachholtz said study participants will undergo three tests
- EMG, or Electromyography – a diagnostic technique for measuring how much general stress is happening in the body. (Electrodes are placed on the forehead.)
- Galvanic Skin Response – to determine how much sweat is on their hands, and to measure the change in electrical resistance caused by emotional stress
- Peripheral Temperature – to determine the temperature of the blood in a finger-tip, and how much it has cooled down since leaving the heart. (Stress causes muscle tension which can slow the blood down.)
Call for Patients
Recruitment is underway for patients who would like to take part in the study.
The COAP Lab is looking for men and women ages 18 to 65 for 12 weeks of no-cost group therapy sessions and specialized appointments to research new techniques to reduce substance abuse and pain.