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Veterans See the Light

Rush seeks alternative treatments for veterans’ pain

Bright light treatment for chronic pain

By Deb Song

Chronic pain disproportionately affects those who have served or are serving in the military, and the most often prescribed pain medications can cause problems of their own. To address this problem, sleep and pain researchers at Rush are testing the feasibility of a morning bright light treatment to reduce and help manage military veterans’ chronic lower back pain and to improve post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, mood and sleep issues.

Participants in the study will spend an hour at home each morning for 13 days sitting in front of a broad-spectrum, ultraviolet ray-free light box. Health care providers already use light therapy to treat seasonal affective disorder, and it’s believed that the therapy may help improve pain and sleep as well as mood in some people.

During a 23-day period before, during and after the light therapy treatment, study participants will wear an actigraphy monitor, which looks like a watch and measures sleep patterns. Participants also will complete questionnaires and have pain assessments as well as provide saliva samples. In addition, they will rate their pain, sleep and mood every day during a one-month follow-up period after the treatment. Rush researchers will use the data to determine the effects of the light therapy.

The VET Bright Light Study at Rush is one of 13 federally funded research projects being conducted at universities and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers across the country that are exploring non-drug approaches to manage chronic pain and related health conditions in veterans. Spanning five years, these studies have received a total $21.7 million in funding from the VA and the National Institutes of Health.

“This is an urgent issue for soldiers returning home,” says Helen Burgess, PhD, director of the Biological Rhythms Research Laboratory and the Center for Clinical Chronobiology at Rush and one of the principal investigators of the VET Bright Light Study. “Many of them are at risk for a lifetime progression of increasing disability, and without more effective and less costly approaches to pain management, the costs of care and disability to the country will approach $5 trillion, according to some estimates.”

A June 2014 report in Journal of the American Medical Association showed an alarmingly high rate of chronic pain — 44 percent — among members of the U.S. military after combat deployment, compared to 26 percent in the general public. Many of these veterans have been prescribed opioids — pain medications that resemble opiates.   

“The drugs can have disabling side effects, and some are addictive and may even exacerbate pain conditions in some patients,” Burgess says. “We hope this research will provide much-needed information that will help our military and their family members, as well as anyone suffering from chronic pain and related conditions.”

U.S. veterans who are 18-70 years old are eligible to participate in the research study. Veterans must have chronic low back pain, as verified by medical records from a physician or chiropractor. For more information or to enroll, please contact Catherine Keefner at (312) 942-1529.

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