Optimizing Psychotherapy for Older Veterans With Chronic Pain (OPOVCP)

  • End date
    Mar 29, 2024
  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    VA Office of Research and Development
Updated on 24 March 2022
chronic pain


This study is being performed to compare the effects of two alternate types of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Emotional Awareness and Expression Therapy (EAET), for chronic musculoskeletal pain in older adults. In addition, the investigators will evaluate which patients respond better to each treatment and further investigate how each treatment works. CBT, which focuses on improving coping skills for pain, is the standard form of psychotherapy offered at VA. EAET instead focuses on understanding how life stress, relationships, and emotions may cause and perpetuate pain.

The investigators are performing the study because pain is a large problem among Veterans. Studies show that chronic pain affects as many as 50% of male Veterans and 75% of female Veterans. The investigators are focusing on older adult Veterans because they have the highest rates of chronic pain at VA, perhaps as high as 80%. The investigators are looking at psychotherapy in this study because VA, the Department of Defense, and the CDC recently recommended psychosocial treatments, such as psychotherapy, as first treatments for chronic pain, along with medications other than opioids (e.g., oxycodone). However, only one form of psychotherapy, CBT, is currently available in clinical practice at VA, and this study may provide evidence for making EAET available to Veterans as well.


The overarching goal of the proposed research is to learn how to optimize psychotherapy for those Veterans most in need and most likely to benefit from psychotherapy, older Veterans with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Chronic pain is a critical healthcare challenge, as the condition affects 50% of all Veterans and affects older Veterans most commonly, severely, and persistently. For years, chronic pain treatment has been notoriously difficult at VA and elsewhere, especially in light of the recent "opioid crisis," in which opioid analgesics, previously a mainstay of chronic pain treatment, have come under increased scrutiny. In response, CDC, VA/DoD, and some experts have called for enhancing and expanding psychosocial treatment options for chronic pain, such as psychotherapy, which are low risk for older Veterans who frequently have multiple medical comorbidities and are taking multiple medications.

Yet standard VA psychotherapy approaches, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), have shown modest benefits for Veterans on pain and other related outcomes, such as mood, anxiety, and sleep. In contrast, a novel psychotherapy approach, Emotional Awareness and Expression Therapy (EAET), has shown medium to large benefits for some chronic pain patients. Whereas CBT improves pain and negative emotion by teaching patients cognitive and behavioral coping skills, affecting brain regions that enhance "cognitive control" of pain, EAET operates primarily through emotion regulation, which is thought to influence brain regions and circuits that modulate both physical pain and emotion-a mechanism absent from existing approaches. The literature and the investigators' pilot data indicate that patients who express emotional distress at baseline, such as high anxiety and depressive symptoms, may be particularly likely to benefit from EAET's emotion regulation approach, whereas patients who express less emotional distress may derive more benefit from an approach like CBT, which does not require ready access to emotions.

The proposed randomized clinical trial tests the hypothesis that EAET is superior to CBT on reduction in mean pain severity and other outcomes derived from IMMPACT. To examine which patients are most likely to benefit, this research also tests whether greater baseline emotional distress (using measures of anxiety and depression) predicts stronger benefits from EAET and whether lower baseline emotional distress predicts stronger benefits from CBT. Finally, this research explores whether the benefits of EAET are mediated by improved emotion regulation, whether the benefits of CBT are mediated by improved cognitive and behavioral coping, and whether the benefits of both are mediated by a stronger working alliance. The investigators plan to enroll 160 multi-ethnic/multi-racial older Veterans (age 60-95 years) with chronic musculoskeletal pain at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center.

This research can introduce an additional, potentially more effective format of psychotherapy at VA so that more Veterans with chronic pain can respond. In addition, this research can lead to better treatment targeting and enhance the understanding of how psychotherapy treatments work. Finally, this research can facilitate the development of critical skills for the PI in psychotherapy research and pain management and enhance his ability to effect positive change for older Veterans.

Recruitment was resumed after the Covid-19 Administrative Hold was lifted in October 2020.

Condition Musculoskeletal Pain
Treatment Cognitive behavior therapy, Emotional Awareness and Expression Therapy
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT03918642
SponsorVA Office of Research and Development
Last Modified on24 March 2022


Yes No Not Sure

Inclusion Criteria

Eligible Veterans are age 60 to 95 years old and have had at least 3 months of
musculoskeletal pain, including the following conditions most likely to benefit from
psychosocial intervention based on previous research
regional pain syndromes (e.g., low back, neck, leg, or pelvic pain, or
temporomandibular joint disorders)
widespread pain syndromes (e.g., fibromyalgia)
tension headaches; or
any combination of these disorders

Exclusion Criteria

Confirmed hip or knee osteoarthritis without other musculoskeletal pain complaints
Leg pain greater than back pain only without other musculoskeletal pain complaints (to
exclude radiculopathy in isolation)
EMG-confirmed "tunnel" syndromes (e.g., carpal or tarsal tunnel syndrome) only without
other musculoskeletal pain complaints
Substantial cognitive impairment or dementia (Mini-Mental State Exam (78) score 24)
Autoimmune disease that typically generates pain (e.g., systemic lupus erythematosus
rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, ankylosing spondylitis)
Cancer pain, sickle cell disease, neuralgias (e.g., trigeminal neuralgia), burn pain
infection associated with pain (e.g., vertebral infection), cauda equina syndrome
Unable to fluently read/converse in English
gout, migraine or cluster headaches without additional musculoskeletal pain
Planning to move from the area in the next 6 months
Uncontrolled severe psychiatric disorder including current psychotic disorder or
severe mood disorder not controlled with medications (e.g., schizophrenia or bipolar I
disorder), dissociative identity disorder, or active suicide/violence risk in the past
Active severe alcohol or substance use disorder that inhibits the participant's
ability to attend session or participate in homework
Currently with pain-related litigation or applying for pain-related compensation or
compensation increase, or undergoing compensation re-evaluation (e.g., applying for VA
service connection or service connection increase for pain)
Patients who have undergone CBT for pain within the last 3 months of enrollment or who
are currently receiving CBT or EAET psychotherapy treatment for pain
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