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Chronic Pain in Older Adults: A Neuroscience-Based Psychological Assessment and Treatment Approach

  • Brandon C. Yarns
    Correspondence
    Send correspondence and reprint requests to Brandon C. Yarns, M.D., M.S., 11301 Wilshire Blvd, Bldg. 401, Rm. A236, Mail Code 116AE, Los Angeles, CA 90073.
    Affiliations
    Department of Psychiatry/Mental Health (BCY,TAZ,ANJ), VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Los Angeles, CA

    Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine (BCY,TAZ,ANJ), University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, CA
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  • Tongtong A. Zhu
    Affiliations
    Department of Psychiatry/Mental Health (BCY,TAZ,ANJ), VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Los Angeles, CA

    Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine (BCY,TAZ,ANJ), University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, CA
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  • Ali Najafian Jazi
    Affiliations
    Department of Psychiatry/Mental Health (BCY,TAZ,ANJ), VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Los Angeles, CA

    Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine (BCY,TAZ,ANJ), University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, CA
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      Abstract

      Chronic pain remains a serious healthcare challenge, particularly for older adults who suffer substantial disability and are susceptible to serious risks from pain medications and invasive procedures. Psychotherapy is a promising option for older adults with chronic pain, since it does not contribute to medical or surgical risks. However, standard psychotherapies for chronic pain, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions, produce only modest and time-limited benefits for older adults. In this article, we describe a novel, evidence-based psychological assessment and treatment approach for older adults with chronic pain, including a detailed case example. The approach begins with reviewing patients’ pain, psychosocial, and medical histories to elicit evidence of a subtype of chronic pain called centralized (primary, nociplastic, or psychophysiologic) pain, which is highly influenced and may even be caused by life stress, emotions, and alterations in brain function. Patients then undertake a novel psychotherapy approach called emotional awareness and expression therapy (EAET) that aims to reduce or eliminate centralized pain by resolving trauma and emotional conflicts and learning healthy communication of adaptive emotions. Our published preliminary clinical trial (n = 53) indicated that EAET produced statistically significant and large effect size advantages over CBT in pain reduction and marginally greater improvements in pain interference than CBT for older adults with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Geriatric mental healthcare providers may learn this assessment and treatment approach to benefit many of their patients with chronic pain.

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