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Denver Lab awarded grant from NIH

The COAP team is working to provide alternative treatments for opioid addicts.
Photo: Genessa Gutzait· The Sentry

Study targets opioid addiction and pain treatments

In July 2017, Dr. Amy Wachholtz (Ph.D., M.Div., M.S.), an assistant psychology professor at CU Denver, and her team at the Comorbid Opioid Addiction and Pain Lab (COAP) were awarded a $700,000 grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) for their research into developing new treatments dealing with chronic pain as a result of opioid addiction.

According to NIH’s Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an opioid epidemic is sweeping through the United States with more than 115 people overdosing on opioids every day. A study done by the CDC in 2017 showed that Colorado had 52.9 painkiller prescriptions per 100 people, and that’s just the low average end of the problem; in the same study, Alabama had 107.2 prescriptions per 100 people. 

Practicing the bench to bedside treatment—when the results of research done in the laboratory are directly used to develop new ways to treat patients—COAP has begun treating patients with Opioid Use Disorder who have chronic pain within their findings. The Self-Regulation Therapy for Opioid Addiction & Pain (STOP) treatment plan was taken to local addiction treatment centers. 

  The COAP Lab, found from the pilot results of their STOP program that they had an 80 percent attendance rate as compared to an average 40 percent attendance rate in other typical addiction treatment centers and no illicit drug use after week eight. 

“It’s early; we can’t make too many predictions, but this is exciting stuff,” Wachholtz stated. “We need to understand psycho-physiological needs before we develop treatment to meet those needs.” 

After recruiting people from local addiction treatment centers, COAP began to research with 120 patients aged 18-65.

  The treatment consists of “a full cognitive behavioral and self-regulation group therapy treatment,” Wachholtz said. “This multi-dimensional protocol includes (among other things) a single psycho-physiological relaxation technique and encourages practice of that technique until it becomes a habit so that it is easily accessible during stress, pain, or opioid cravings.” 

According to Wachholtz, addiction treatment centers aren’t usually staffed with those trained in treating chronic pain, and pain clinics aren’t equipped to approach addiction, creating a sort of Catch-22 for those encountering opioid addiction due to their chronic pain. 

With the STOP treatment, the COAP team attempted to treat addiction through pain tolerance. 

Wachholtz presented the idea of pain psychology as a sort of volume knob. “Essentially the brain turns down the volume knob on pain when it’s processing other things,” she said.  “We’re trying to teach people to be able to control their own pain as all pain has some psychological component.”

According to Wachholtz, the odds of opioid relapse in those with moderate pain are 2.6 times more likely than in those without chronic pain, and relapse is five times more likely in those with severe pain.

The COAP Lab is currently looking for men and women aged 18 to 65 that have been diagnosed with Opioid Use Disorder and experience chronic pain to enter their 12-week rolling entry group therapy program. 

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