Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) as a Tool to Decrease Pain and Improve Functioning

  • End date
    May 31, 2022
  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    VA Office of Research and Development
Updated on 22 June 2021
chronic pain
narcotic use
opioid substitution


Despite the availability of opioid replacement therapies, many opioid use disordered Veterans are not able to remain abstinent. Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) is a non-invasive neuromodulation technique with a consistent, rapidly expanding literature base reporting positive outcomes in substance using populations. This pilot application will investigate a novel multi-session rTMS paradigm to determine feasibility and tolerability of this intervention in opioid use disordered Veterans.


Opioid use disorders (OUDs) are common among Veterans. Despite the availability of opioid replacement therapies, many individuals continue to abuse opioids and relapse rates remain high. Veterans are nearly twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdose than the general population. Approximately 60% of Veterans returning from the Middle East and more than 50% of older Veterans in the VA health care system have chronic pain. Further, post-traumatic stress disorder, a common comorbidity in the Veteran population, has been shown to negatively impact early engagement and retention of individuals in OUD treatment. As is the case with other substance use disorders, opioid craving is commonly described by abstinent patients whether or not they are stabilized on buprenorphine. Subsequently, a treatment that reduces pain and craving, while also improving early engagement and retention in treatment, would improve recovery from opioid addiction. Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) is capable of non-invasively altering cortical function. rTMS is an FDA-approved treatment for major depressive disorder. Preliminary evidence suggests that rTMS can also reduce pain in chronic pain conditions and craving in substance use disorders. Single sessions of rTMS produce small temporary effects, while multiple sessions of rTMS result in larger, more durable effects. The investigators' group recently completed a blinded, sham-controlled crossover trial in non-treatment seeking OUD participants. A single session of rTMS reduced cue-induced craving and increased thermal pain thresholds. Given that multiple sessions of rTMS produce larger and more durable treatment effects than single sessions of rTMS, it follows that multiple treatment sessions applied to OUD patients may result in a clinically relevant reduction in pain and cue-induced craving, which could improve clinical and functional outcomes.

In this SPiRE pilot proposal, the investigators will perform a randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled trial delivering an accelerated course of rTMS to a cohort of OUD Veterans with chronic pain receiving treatment through the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center Substance Treatment and Recovery program. The goal of this proposal is to evaluate the feasibility and acceptability of delivering rTMS to the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex in Veterans with OUD and chronic pain. The investigators will also preliminarily explore the feasibility of evaluating potential outcome measurements in preparation for a larger trial, including abstinence, treatment retention, community reintegration and functional outcomes, pain, and opioid craving. Positive results from this pilot project will inform a future MERIT application and have the potential to significantly improve treatment outcomes in this difficult to treat Veteran population.

Condition Opioid Use Disorder
Treatment Sham TMS, repetitive Trans Magnetic Stimulation
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT03821337
SponsorVA Office of Research and Development
Last Modified on22 June 2021


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Inclusion Criteria

Participants must be able to provide informed consent and function at an intellectual level sufficient to allow accurate completion of all assessment instruments
Participants must meet moderate to severe DSM-5 criteria for OUD. While individuals may also meet criteria for use disorders of other substances (with the exception of alcohol or benzodiazepines), they must identify opioids as their primary substance of abuse
Participants must report chronic pain for at least the past three months and have a Brief Pain Inventory score
Participants must be receiving treatment through the STAR program

Exclusion Criteria

Participants who are pregnant
Participants with a history of/or current psychotic disorder
Participants with a history of dementia or other cognitive impairment
Participants with active suicidal ideation, or a suicide attempt within the past 90 days will be excluded
Participants with contraindications to receiving rTMS (including a history of seizures, or any implanted metal above the neck)
Those with unstable general medical conditions
Those who are currently using naltrexone or tramadol
Those with current alcohol or benzodiazepine use disorders due to increased risk of seizure
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