Conjoint Therapy for Pain Management: A Pilot Study


Working with couples in which a partner suffers from chronic musculoskeletal pain, determine the feasibility of Conjoint Therapy for Pain Management. Assess how well the therapy helps to improve pain-related functioning. Measure the therapy’s contribution to couples’ psychological wellbeing, relationship satisfaction, and communication with each other.

Chronic pain:

  • Affects approximately 100 million Americans, resulting in more than $600 billion in direct and indirect costs, making it a significant national health care concern.
  • Increases risk for psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, and substance use, as well as interpersonal distress, particularly within romantic relationships.
  • Can cause distress for family members.

Family members of chronic pain patients report elevated caregiver burden, lower relationship quality and satisfaction, and decreased physical and psychological health. Marital distress and partners’ psychological maladjustment are problematic in pain management. Partners with depression/anxiety are less able to help their significant other cope with pain. Erosion of the quality of the relationship creates additional stress for patients.

Although research has shown a reciprocal relationship between chronic pain and relationship satisfaction, little has been done to develop treatments that include family members. Principal Investigators Tabatha Blount, PhD, and Cindy McGeary, PhD, the developers of this pilot study affiliated with the STRONG STAR Consortium, believe that chronic pain sufferers who are in a committed relationship may benefit from a couple-based pain management treatment.

First study of its kind

In what is believed to be the first pilot study of a couple-based treatment for chronic pain, the research team will test a treatment program called Conjoint Therapy for Pain Management in couples in which a partner has suffered from chronic pain for more than 12 weeks. Drs. McGeary and Blount, both members of the Psychiatry Department faculty in the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, will work with the UT Medicine Pain Consultants Clinic to recruit 10 patients and their spouses or cohabitating partners for this study.

The investigators will incorporate proven pain management interventions into a program similar to Cognitive-Behavioral Conjoint Therapy (CBCT) for PTSD, previously developed by Candice Monson, PhD, of Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada, and Steffany Fredman, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University (also STRONG STAR-affiliated investigators). That therapy simultaneously targets posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and relationship distress. For couples, dealing with PTSD requires skills similar to those needed for dealing with pain, including communication training and overcoming fear-based avoidance of certain situations and activities.

Treatment in the CBCT for pain program will focus on managing chronic pain through:

  • psychoeducation about chronic pain and related relationship problems
  • communication skills training
  • breathing techniques
  • imagery
  • cognitive/behavioral interventions
  • acceptance, progressive muscle relaxation
  • mindfulness

CBCT will emphasize helping patients realize their potential to make progress gaining physical function, such as walking, bending, and lifting.

Expected results

The research group hypothesizes that including intimate partners in the treatment of chronic pain may improve patients’ adherence to treatment, improve their physical and social functioning, and improve overall couple’s satisfaction for both partners. The investigators expect that this pilot study will yield data relevant for the development of the first randomized controlled trial to systematically examine the role that others play in patients’ pain management treatments. That will inform improved therapies to ease the suffering of the millions of Americans and others worldwide living with chronic pain.

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