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Joining forces to ease chronic pain

July 6, 2017

(1) Comment.  |   Tags: aging,   Elaine Wethington,   gerontology,   Karl Pillemer,   pain,   TRIPLL,  

triplllogo-smallerBy Sheri Hall for the BCTR

Pain relievers are some of the most commonly-used medicines among older adults. But a Cornell-based organization called the Translational Research Institute on Pain in Later Life, or TRIPLL, is exploring alternative ways to alleviate pain in older adults.

TRIPLL is one of the most active and long-standing collaborations among the Cornell campuses — comprising researchers and graduate students at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Researcher (BCTR), Weill Cornell Medicine, and Cornell Tech, plus dozens of community organizations serving seniors in New York City.

“It’s a very broad and deep collaboration,” said Karl Pillemer, TRIPLL co-director and director of the BCTR. “Because of our use of video conferencing, Skype and frequent meetings, it’s honestly not much different than if we were all in the same building. A number of us work with our TRIPLL colleagues even more than with people on our own campuses.”

TRIPLL was founded in 2009 with a grant from the National Institute on Aging. It is one of 12 federally-funded Edward R. Roybal Centers for Translational Research on Aging across the nation; each one focuses on a different aspect related to the health and well-being of older Americans.

TRIPLL brings together faculty from a variety of disciplines, including clinical medicine, epidemiology, gerontology, the social and behavioral sciences, computer science to focus non-pharmacologic methods of pain relief.

“Pain is a huge problem — it’s one of the things that keeps people homebound,” says Riverdale Senior Services director Julia Schwartz-Leeper, who regularly uses the institute’s webinars to train her staff. “The work that TRIPLL does is critically important.”

Karl Pillemer and Elaine Wethington

Karl Pillemer and Elaine Wethington

As the American population ages, the issue of treating pain in older adults is only getting more pressing. TRIPLL co-director Dr. Elaine Wethington, a medical sociologist and an associate director at the BCTR, notes that one-third of older adults has chronic pain — “and the majority of those find inadequate relief.”

Effective, evidence-based alternatives to pharmaceuticals are needed because many older adults have pre-existing conditions, such as heart failure or kidney problems, that pain medicines can exacerbate. The epidemic of opioid abuse also complicates matters. Fear of addiction may discourage older people from taking pain drugs. And reducing the number of opioid prescriptions keeps the drugs out of a medicine cabinet where they could be misused by family members or others, Pillemer said.

“Our inability to deal with chronic pain through non-drug methods is a huge problem,” he said. “In terms of an issue that makes the largest number of people miserable, chronic pain is at the top. But it’s not a high-profile problem that has an easy cure, so it doesn’t attract as much research funding.”

In an effort to combat the problem, TRIPLL’s researchers award grants for pilot studies; hold monthly seminars linking researchers on the various campuses; mentor graduate students, post-docs, fellows and junior faculty; and serve as a resource to New York City community service agencies, whose tens of thousands of clients provide a deep bench of volunteers for research studies.

“For years there’s been a consensus among researchers that pain is not just a biological phenomenon, it’s also a social and a psychological one, but there are few centers in the United States that look at pain from this biopsychosocial perspective,” Wethington said. “Our commitment is to understand these aspects as completely as we can — to get really smart people working on them, to publish papers in places where they’ll have an effect on practice.”

This story is adapted from an article that was first published in Weill Cornell Medicine, Vol. 16, No. 1.

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One Comment

July 06, 2017
Mary Jo

I suggest Osteopathy to help "older adults" deal with pain. (Frankly any age, can benefit from Osteopathic treatments, but your article is focused on the aging population.) We have two great Osteopaths in Ithaca, Dr. Gentry and Dr. Teves. Perhaps you could invite them to one of your seminars.

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