Non-Pharmacological Approaches for Pain Management in Sickle Cell Disease: Development of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention

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Williams, Hants


Tanabe, Paula

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Background: Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) is a genetic hematological disorder that affects more than 7 million people globally (NHLBI, 2009). It is estimated that 50% of adults with SCD experience pain on most days, with 1/3 experiencing chronic pain daily (Smith et al., 2008). Persons with SCD also experience higher levels of pain catastrophizing (feelings of helplessness, pain rumination and magnification) than other chronic pain conditions, which is associated with increases in pain intensity, pain behavior, analgesic consumption, frequency and duration of hospital visits, and with reduced daily activities (Sullivan, Bishop, & Pivik, 1995; Keefe et al., 2000; Gil et al., 1992 & 1993). Therefore effective interventions are needed that can successfully be used manage pain and pain-related outcomes (e.g., pain catastrophizing) in persons with SCD. A review of the literature demonstrated limited information regarding the feasibility and efficacy of non-pharmacological approaches for pain in persons with SCD, finding an average effect size of .33 on pain reduction across measurable non-pharmacological studies. Second, a prospective study on persons with SCD that received care for a vaso-occlusive crisis (VOC; N = 95) found: (1) high levels of patient reported depression (29%) and anxiety (34%), and (2) that unemployment was significantly associated with increased frequency of acute care encounters and hospital admissions per person. Research suggests that one promising category of non-pharmacological interventions for managing both physical and affective components of pain are Mindfulness-based Interventions (MBIs; Thompson et al., 2010; Cox et al., 2013). The primary goal of this dissertation was thus to develop and test the feasibility, acceptability, and efficacy of a telephonic MBI for pain catastrophizing in persons with SCD and chronic pain.

Methods: First, a telephonic MBI was developed through an informal process that involved iterative feedback from patients, clinical experts in SCD and pain management, social workers, psychologists, and mindfulness clinicians. Through this process, relevant topics and skills were selected to adapt in each MBI session. Second, a pilot randomized controlled trial was conducted to test the feasibility, acceptability, and efficacy of the telephonic MBI for pain catastrophizing in persons with SCD and chronic pain. Acceptability and feasibility were determined by assessment of recruitment, attrition, dropout, and refusal rates (including refusal reasons), along with semi-structured interviews with nine randomly selected patients at the end of study. Participants completed assessments at baseline, Week 1, 3, and 6 to assess efficacy of the intervention on decreasing pain catastrophizing and other pain-related outcomes.

Results: A telephonic MBI is feasible and acceptable for persons with SCD and chronic pain. Seventy-eight patients with SCD and chronic pain were approached, and 76% (N = 60) were enrolled and randomized. The MBI attendance rate, approximately 57% of participants completing at least four mindfulness sessions, was deemed acceptable, and participants that received the telephonic MBI described it as acceptable, easy to access, and consume in post-intervention interviews. The amount of missing data was undesirable (MBI condition, 40%; control condition, 25%), but fell within the range of expected missing outcome data for a RCT with multiple follow-up assessments. Efficacy of the MBI on pain catastrophizing could not be determined due to small sample size and degree of missing data, but trajectory analyses conducted for the MBI condition only trended in the right direction and pain catastrophizing approached statistically significance.

Conclusion: Overall results showed that at telephonic group-based MBI is acceptable and feasible for persons with SCD and chronic pain. Though the study was not able to determine treatment efficacy nor powered to detect a statistically significant difference between conditions, participants (1) described the intervention as acceptable, and (2) the observed effect sizes for the MBI condition demonstrated large effects of the MBI on pain catastrophizing, mental health, and physical health. Replication of this MBI study with a larger sample size, active control group, and additional assessments at the end of each week (e.g., Week 1 through Week 6) is needed to determine treatment efficacy. Many lessons were learned that will guide the development of future studies including which MBI strategies were most helpful, methods to encourage continued participation, and how to improve data capture.






Williams, Hants (2016). Non-Pharmacological Approaches for Pain Management in Sickle Cell Disease: Development of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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