UC Berkeley professor co-develops questionnaire to help combat chronic pain before it begins

Berkeley Way West
Karen Chow/File
About a third of the adult population suffers from some form of chronic pain, according to UC Berkeley School of Public Health professor Timothy Brown.

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Doctors may now be able to predict chronic pain up to a decade before it manifests, thanks to a screening tool co-developed by a UC Berkeley professor.

The study, dubbed FUTUREPAIN, aimed to build a questionnaire measuring the probability of an individual developing chronic pain seven to 10 years in the future. Using data from an existing series of national surveys, the researchers collected relevant variables based on an examination of medical literature, formed a statistical model and used machine learning techniques to isolate risk factors for moderate-to-severe chronic pain. The questionnaire contains 17 items, with a higher score translating to a higher likelihood of the respondent experiencing chronic pain in the next several years.

“This tool is unique in that it can be used in general people without pain symptoms,” said study co-author Woojung Lee in an email. “(It) can help identify people at risk of developing chronic pain so, hopefully, clinical interventions such as psychological treatment can prevent it from occurring or at least lessen its intensity.”

The tool can detect individuals who will go on to develop chronic pain with an accuracy of 88%, according to Lee.

About a third of the adult population suffers from some form of chronic pain, according to study co-author and UC Berkeley School of Public Health professor Timothy Brown. The study estimates that chronic pain costs the nation about $560 billion to $635 billion annually in health care expenditures and lost productivity, outpacing the cost of cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined.

For sufferers of moderate-to-severe chronic pain, even simple daily activities can become a burden, the study adds. Once chronic pain is developed, said Lee, it is nearly impossible to fully reverse.

In choosing which data to consider, Brown and Lee used the biopsychosocial model, which takes into account several categories of risk factors, such as clinical history, personality traits and traumatic childhood experiences.

The questionnaire can be used in a clinical setting to determine which patients are likely to experience chronic pain so that preventative measures can be prescribed before the pain develops. The questionnaire also contains subscores for biological, psychological and social risk factors, so clinicians can gauge how likely a patient is to benefit from psychological treatment as opposed to other forms of intervention, the study adds.

Brown said the study possesses promising research applications.

“We plan to use the FUTUREPAIN questionnaire as a screening tool to enroll subjects into a study to determine the extent to which we can prevent future chronic pain,” Brown said. “We will be testing a number of interventions to see which works best. We also plan to examine the extent to which the interventions to prevent chronic pain may also alleviate existing chronic pain.”

Brown and Lee plan to make the questionnaire publicly available on the FUTUREPAIN website, which is set to launch in January.

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annickyr.