A (Virtual) Reality Without Pain?

NY Times Magazine, Helen Ouyang 5/22/22: Can Virtual Reality Help Ease Chronic Pain?

This lengthy article describes the emerging therapy of virtual reality to help with chronic pain. Some of the article focuses on chronic abdominal pain.

Here are some excerpts:

  • Brennan Spiegel, a gastroenterologist and researcher at Cedars-Sinai .. runs one of the largest academic medical initiatives studying virtual reality as a health therapy…
  • As Daniel Clauw, who runs the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan, put it in a 2019 lecture, there isn’t “any drug in any chronic-pain state that works in better than one out of three people.” He went on to say that nonpharmacological therapy should instead be “front and center in managing chronic pain — rather than opioids, or for that matter, any of our drugs…”
  • In November, the Food and Drug Administration gave authorization for the first V.R. product to be marketed for the treatment of chronic pain.
  • [In one] virtual environment … built specifically for patients with chronic gastrointestinal symptoms…[the patient] used hand controls. Inside a virtual clinic, a robot named Maia — short for “mixed-reality artificial-intelligence assistant” — guided her to a young blond woman, who expressed frustration with abdominal symptoms. [The patient] examined the [virtual] patient with her virtual hands, placing a stethoscope on her stomach to listen to the sounds of digestion. Maia explained how the brain and the gut work together. As she spoke, an image of a brain popped up, connected to intestines by a yellow flashing line. When the brain became stressed, it turned fuchsia in color, and the yellow line to the gut metamorphosed into a stream of fire...
  • Scientists knew that the brain has some control over pain, but that insight was mostly confined to the situations described by Patrick Wall’s and Ronald Melzack’s gate-control theory, which helps explain why, say, a person running from a house on fire may not realize that she sprained her ankle until she is a safe distance away. The brain, so intent on escaping the fire, shuts the gate, blocking pain signals coming up the spinal cord from the ankle. “You could close the gate,” says Clifford Woolf, a neurobiology professor at Harvard Medical School who worked in Wall’s lab, but “essentially there was nothing about the opposite possibility — which is that the brain, independent of the periphery, could be a generator of pain.”
  • “Woolf was conducting his own experiment in Wall’s lab, applying painful stimuli to rats’ hind legs. The animals developed large “fields” of pain that could easily be activated months later with a light tap or gentle warmth, even in spots that weren’t being touched directly. “I was changing the function of the nervous system, such that its properties were altered,” Woolf says. “Pain was not simply a measure of some peripheral pathology,” he concluded; it “could also be the consequence of abnormal amplification within the nervous system — this was the phenomenon of central sensitization.”
  • V.R.’s “unique ability to convey a sense of just ‘being there,’ wherever there happens to be,” as he [Spiegel] puts it in his book “VRx: How Virtual Therapeutics Will Revolutionize Medicine.” “All of its revolutionary potential tumbles out of its ability to compel a person’s brain and body to react to a different reality.” 
  • RelieVRx also has modules that prompt patients to redirect their attention through game play or by allowing scenes — waves washing onto a sunny coast, say — to soothe their nervous systems. The average session lasts seven minutes, and patients are directed to do just one a day for eight weeks
  • A recently published study by researchers affiliated with the company [AppliedVR], for which they recruited subjects during the pandemic through Facebook ads and pain organizations, reported an average drop in chronic back pain by nearly 43 percent for the RelieVRx group compared with 25 percent for the control group. For those who used RelieVRx, pain also interfered less with their activity and sleep. Three months after the last V.R. session, these gains were mostly found to endure
  • In chronic pain, the body part that hurts may be undamaged and even seem healthy; what’s altered is the area of the brain that corresponds to its anatomical location...
  • If doctors do start prescribing V.R., there’s another hurdle to clear: Who will pay for it? 

My take: I am looking forward to the pediatric studies which will be needed before this technology can be promoted. I would think pediatric patients with chronic pain may respond even more favorably than adults. If this technology were in our clinic, I am certain that are “no show” rate would be lower.

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This could be me in a virtual reality. Picture taken at Connie’s Photo Park in Madrid, NM.

Good Study, Bad Practice: Placebo for IBS and Functional Abdominal Pain

Have a great day (Mt Yonah, Cleveland GA)

S Nurko et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2022;176(4):349-356. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.5750. Adolescents With Functional Abdominal Pain or Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Design: Patients completed 1 week of observation prior to randomization to 1 of 2 counterbalanced groups: OLP for 3 weeks followed by a 3-week control period or control period for 3 weeks followed by OLP for 3 weeks. During the OLP period, participants took 1.5 mL of an inert liquid placebo twice a day.

Key findings:

  • The mean (SD) pain scores were significantly lower during open label placebo (OLP) treatment compared with the control period (39.9 [18.9] vs 45.0 [14.7]; difference, 5.2; 95% CI, 0.2-10.1; P = .03)
  • Patients took nearly twice as many hyoscyamine pills during the control period compared with during the OLP period (mean [SD] number, 3.8 [5.1] pills vs 2.0 [3.0] pills; difference, 1.8 pills; 95% CI, 0.5-3.1 pills)

My take: It is a mistake to consider placebo as a treatment for functional abdominal pain. In many children, pain fluctuates and may improve with reassurance, distraction, healthier diets, and physical activity. However, we also need more effective therapies including pain psychology, dietary approaches and medications. The idea that placebo helps is misleading and undermines the fact that patients with functional disorders need effective treatment.

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Auricular Stimulation Associated with Less Pain, Less Disability, and Better Sleep

N Santucci et al. Neurogastroenterology & Motility. 2022;00:e14358. Effect of percutaneous electrical nerve field stimulation on mechanosensitivity, sleep, and psychological comorbidities in adolescents with functional abdominal pain disorders

This study evaluated the effects of IB-stim® (Innovative Health Solutions, Versailles, IN, USA) in 20 patients (11-19 years old) with functional pain. This external auricular device with a battery powered generator that creates percutaneous electrical nerve field stimulation (PENFS), targeting cranial nerves V, VII, IX, and X. This device which has been associated with improvement in functional abdominal pain previously was evaluated for its effects on resting and evoked pain and nausea, sleep and psychological functioning, and long-term outcomes.

Key Findings:

  • During pain evoked by Water Load Symptom Provocation Task (WL-SPT), visual analog scale (VAS) pain intensity and nausea were lower following PENFS compared with baseline (p = 0.004 and p = 0.02, respectively)
  • After PENFS, resting VAS pain unpleasantness (p = 0.03), abdominal pain (p < 0.0001), pain catastrophizing (p = 0.0004), somatic complaints (0.01), functional disability (p = 0.04), and anxiety (p = 0.02) exhibited significant improvements, and some were sustained long-term.
  • Self-reported sleep improved after PENFS (p’s < 0.05) as well as actigraphy-derived sleep onset latency (p = 0.03). The authors note that, paradoxically, patients receiving neuromodulators had more trouble with sleep at baseline. “It is hard to tease out if these differences are due to the medications themselves or if the patients on these medications have more severe symptoms that may have a bigger impact on their life”
  • In assessing predictors of response to PENFS therapy, those with higher pain catastrophizing and somatization had lesser reduction in VAS pain scores, while those with high anxiety had lesser improvements in functioning.
  • Study limitations: small sample size and lack of control/sham group

In this limited study, PENFS was associated with improvements in pain intensity and nausea through visual analog scales and validated questionnaires. Disability, pain catastrophizing, somatization, and anxiety reduced after four weeks of PENFS and effects were sustained at 6–12 months post-treatment.

My take: Auricular stimulation if feasible (in terms of cost) is a good alternative to pharmacologic therapy. It would be of interest to study outcomes of patients who received this treatment modality compared with those who were treated by well-qualified pain psychologists.

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Osprey on The Hunley Bridge, Isle of Palms, SC

Functional Abdominal Pain in Children with Celiac Disease

F Cristofori et al. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol 2021; 19: 2551-2558. Functional Abdominal Pain Disorders and Constipation in Children on Gluten-Free Diet

This prospective cohort (2016-2018, n=417, mean age 13.7 y) examined the frequency of functional disorders (based on questionnaire) in children with celiac disease (CD) who were receiving a strict gluten free diet (GFD) for at least one year.

Key findings:

  • Functional abdominal pain disorders (FAPDs) had a higher prevalence s among patients with CD (11.5%) than controls (6.7%)  (P < .05)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional constipation (FC) defined by the Rome IV criteria were more prevalent in patients with CD (7.2% for IBS and 19.9% for FC) than controls (3.2% for IBS and 10.5% for FC) (P < .05 and P < .001, respectively)
  • Younger age (P < .05) and a higher level of anti–transglutaminase IgA at diagnosis (P < .04) were associated with FAPDs (in particular for IBS) irrespective of GFD duration
  • A GFD did help with abdominal pain: After starting a GFD, 80% of children with celiac disease had resolution of stomach pain, whereas 9% started to complain of symptoms after starting a GFD

In the discussion, the authors speculate on the reasons for ongoing pain including inadvertent gluten exposure, intestinal inflammation/visceral hyperalgesia, altered microbiome, and refractory CD.

My take: Persistent stomach pain in CD is a common occurrence, even in those trying to adhere to a strict GFD.

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Chattahoochee River, Atlanta

Course of Functional Abdominal Pain Before and During Pandemic

C Strisciuglio et al. JPGN 2021; 73: 689-694. Overall Impact of Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak in Children With Functional Abdominal Pain Disorders: Results From the First Pandemic Phase

In this multicenter, observational, international study conducted between April and July 2020 at six different referral centers, the authors studied two groups:

  1. Children diagnosed with FAPDs between October 2019 and February 2020 were enrolled and prospectively interviewed at 4 months of follow-up during the first pandemic phase (Quarantine group, n=180, mean age 14 yrs)
  2. A cohort of children diagnosed with FAPDs between October 2018 and February 2019 was used as a Control group, n=176, mean age 13 yrs)

Key findings:

  • At 4 months of follow-up, both groups had a significant reduction of children reporting >5 episodes of abdominal pain per month when compared to baseline. Quarantine group: 63.9% vs 42.2%, P < 0.001; Control group: 83.5% vs 50%, P < 0.001.
  • Overall, 57% of the Quarantine group and 63.5% of the Control group had improvement of all symptoms.

My take: This study shows that the majority of patients with functional abdominal pain have improvement (at least temporarily) and reinforce the benefit of reassurance/conservative approach for many even during the pandemic. It is possible that school closures and additional parental attention mitigated some of the improvement in the Quarantine group.

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Siesta Key, FL

Gluten-Free Diet –Role in IBS?

MI Pinto-Sanchez et al. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol 2021; 19: 2343-2352. Open Access: Gluten-Free Diet Reduces Symptoms, Particularly Diarrhea, in Patients With Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Antigliadin IgG

In this prospective study of 50 patients with IBS (ROME III, all subtypes), with and without serologic reactivity to gluten (antigliadin IgG and IgA), and 25 healthy subjects (controls) were studied before and after 4 weeks of a GFD. Celiac disease (CD) was ruled out in patients and controls by negative tissue transglutaminase (tTG) IgA antibody and deamidated gliadin IgA or IgG antibodies and by the absence of mucosal atrophy in a duodenal biopsy specimen (Marsh 0 or 1). At least 4 and 2 biopsy specimens were obtained from the second and the first part of the duodenum, respectively.

Key findings:

  • Compared with baseline, IBS symptoms improved in 18 of 24 patients (75%) with antigliadin IgG and IgA and in 8 of 21 patients (38%) without the antibodies
(A) Improvement in IBS symptoms (>4.5 points in the total Birmingham score) in antigliadin antibody (AGA)+ and AGA patients after GFD. (B) Change in IBS symptoms after a gluten-free diet (GFD) compared with baseline in AGA+ and AGA patients.

The associated editorial (A Rej et al. Open Access: Personalizing Dietary Therapies For Irritable Bowel Syndrome: What Is Gluten’s Role?) provides some useful points:

  • “A key trigger for symptom generation in IBS is diet, with more than 80% reporting food-related symptoms…It seems that wheat is a key component for symptom generation in IBS, as demonstrated by a study in 920 patients by Carroccio et al,8 which identified wheat sensitivity in 30% of patients”
  • The authors note that the Pinto-Sanchez population had a higher-than-expected rate of AGA positivity of 50% when previous studies have found rates of 7-18%.

My take: This prospective study indicates that a GFD is associated with clinical improvement in a significant number of individuals with IBS (with and without antigliadin antibodies) who did not report any gluten sensitivity or were not on a gluten-restricted diet before study entry. Based on a number of other studies, however, it seems that a low FODMAPs diet is likely to have a higher efficacy for patients with IBS.

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“How to Approach a Patient with Difficult-to-Treat IBS”

L Chang. Gastroenterol 2021; 163: 1092-1098. How to Approach a Patient with Difficult-to-Treat IBS

For a short article, this review provides a lot of practical advice. Challenges with IBS include the lack of objective biomarkers and “patients are often dissatisfied with a positive diagnostic approach or even after multiple negative tests.” The author recommends the following:

  • Confidently communicate the diagnosis of IBS
  • Explain visceral hypersensitivity and its associated with pain, and bloating and why central neuromodulators and behavioral therapy are often used. Explain that IBS can be associated with high-amplitude propagating contractures which can cause pain/diarrhea
  • Treatment focused on ‘RESET’ =Relationship with patient-provider, Education/reassurance, Symptom assessment, Exacerbating/alleviating factors, and Targeting treatment (see Table 1)

Treatment may need to target gut, brain and/or both

  • Dietary treatments considered 1st line approach
  • Treatment pharmacology options for IBS-D include antidiarrheals, antispasmotics, rifaximin, eluxadoline, alosetron (rarely, can cause ischemic colitis), bile acid sequestrants
  • Treatment pharmacology options for IBS-C include polyethylene glycol, lubiprostone, linaclotide, plecanatide, and tegaserod (restricted to women <65 yrs w/o cardiovascular dz)
  • Treatment pharmacology options for all IBS include TCAs (start with low dose and can titrate upwards; amitriptyline for IBS-C, nortriptyline or desipramine for IBS-M or IBS-C), SNRI (eg. duloxetine (may be better than TCAs in patients with IBS-C and comorbidities like fibromyalgia and depression), mirtazapine (small studies demonstrated benefit for IBS-D and functional dyspepsia), SSRIs (“consider…in patients with predominant anxiety and/or depression…advise against its use as primary treatment for IBS w/o comorbid psychological disorder”), delta ligand agent (eg. pregabalin) (consider if refractory to other treatments), and brain-gut therapies (eg. CBT, GDH)

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It Hurts Here and Here and Here

A recent study (below) reminded me of a joke. First the joke (better with the visual effect):

A guy goes to his doctor. The patient says, “Doctor when I touch here on my shoulder (with index finger) it hurts, when I touch here on my leg (with index finger) it hurts, and when I touch here on my stomach (with index finger) it hurts.”

The doctor says: “Your finger is broken.”

BP Chumpitazi et al. J Pediatr 2021; 236; 131-136. Multisite Pain Is Highly Prevalent in Children with Functional Abdominal Pain Disorders and Is Associated with Increased Morbidity

In this cross-sectional study of 7-17 year olds (n=406) with Rome III functional abdominal pain disorder (FAPD), the authors examined the frequency of pain outside GI tract over a 2 week study period. Patients were recruited from both a large academic pediatric GI practice and general pediatric offices in same hospital system.

Key findings:

  • In total, 295 (73%) children endorsed at least 1 co-occurring nonabdominal pain, thus, were categorized as having multisite pain with the following symptoms: 172 (42%) headaches, 143 (35%) chest pain, 134 (33%) muscle soreness, 110 (27%) back pain, 94 (23%) joint pain, and 87 (21%) extremity (arms and legs) pain
  • In addition, 200 children (49%) endorsed 2 or more nonabdominal pain symptoms
  • Participants with (vs without) multisite pain had significantly higher abdominal pain frequency (P < .001) and severity (P = .03), anxiety (P < .001), and depression (P < .001). Similarly, children with multisite pain (vs without) had significantly worse functional disability (P < .001) and health-related quality of life scores (P < .001).

The authors note that due to the design of their study, they cannot establish a causal association between pain symptoms and psychosocial functioning.

My take: A lot of kids with stomach pain have multisite pain as well as anxiety and depression. This study reminds us to ask about them.

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More Pictures From Atlanta Beltline West End

“An Allergic Basis for Abdominal Pain”

A recent post (Mechanisms of Postinfectious IBS & Functional Pain) reviewed a study which described how food antigens during an infectious process can result in meal-induced pain.

A recent review of this study (M Rothenberg. NEJM 2021; 384:2156-2158. An Allergic Basis for Abdominal Pain) provides more insight.

Key points:

  • “A peripheral immune mechanism involving local mast cells stimulated by food-induced local IgE may underlie the symptoms associated with IBS and functional abdominal pain; these findings prompt consideration of new therapeutic strategies to target mast cells and allergies.”
  • The article reviews the experimental methods/results used in both mice and humans. Mice that were treated with agents that interfered with allergy “including anti-IgE, mast-cell stabilizers, and histamine H1 receptor antagonists, attenuated the pathologic and symptomatic responses…mice [that were] deficient in mast cells or in histamine H1 receptor were protected” as well.
  • The study shows that a “bacterial infection can break oral tolerance to a dietary antigen…which in turn can lead to increased gut permeability.”
  • The findings in human “showed no evidence of systemic IgE against common foods” but localized reactions were identified in every IBS patient after allergen injection into rectal mucosa.

My take: This study adds to the evidence that specific foods can lead to localized tissue-specific allergic responses. Nevetheless, it is still a futile effort to look for systemic allergic food reactions in patients with IBS and functional GI disorders.

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