We asked a doctor whether smartphone tech could really be the answer to long-lasting pain relief.

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Updated: December 05, 2017
Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Chronic pain is a silent epidemic in America. One in six Americans (the majority of them being women) say they have significant chronic or severe pain, according to a recent study from the National Institutes of Health.

Suffering from persistent pain can impact every aspect of your life, reducing the ability to work, hurting relationships, draining bank accounts, and in severe cases causing disabilities. The economic impact alone is immense, with chronic pain costing America more than $635 billion a year, according to the American Pain Society-not to mention the toll it takes on the sufferers' mental health. One 2014 study found that chronic pain significantly increases a person's risk of depression, anxiety, and even suicide. All of which is to say that chronic pain is a horrible health problem, so finding a cure could change millions of lives for the better.

One start-up is looking to do just that. Curable is a guided self-management app to help you manage chronic pain. It teaches users specialized mind-body techniques, such as guided meditation sessions, pain-relief visualizations, and expressive writing prompts. It's a big promise-but one that cofounder Laura Seago feels confident in making because she's used the method herself. Just a couple years ago, Seago was dealing with crushing migraines that could last up to 48 hours at a time. After trying everything from medication to dietary changes, physical therapy, and even a mouth guard (to prevent any clenching of her jaw at night), she met a doctor who told her that there was actually nothing wrong with her physically. Wait, what? She was taught what's called a "biopsychosocial approach" to pain relief, which treats a person's mind and body as a single, cohesive unit by "retraining your brain to reverse the cycle of pain," according to Curable's website. Long story short, it worked for Seago. She says she hasn't had a migraine or even a headache that needed anything stronger than an ibuprofen for more than a year. (Read more about these 12 natural headache remedies that really work.)

Sound too good to be true? We wondered, and started asking around.

"I wish curing chronic pain was as simple as using an app, but that's just wishful thinking," says Medhat Mikhael, M.D., a pain management specialist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. "It might be able to help take your mind off the pain. But it's not the answer, or a cure, for all chronic pain conditions."

The issue is that most chronic pain starts with a physical cause-a ruptured disk, a car accident, a sports injury-and that must be taken care of before the pain can resolve, says Dr. Mikhael. Sometimes the pain will persist even after the body has healed, and sometimes a cause can never be found. "This could benefit people whose pain stems solely from anxiety or stress, but it is no good for someone who has an underlying physical cause of their pain," he says. (One of the things mindfulness and meditation can do? Help you heal from emotional pain.)

For someone suffering from chronic pain, the best thing they can do is find a doctor who will really listen to them, get them the correct diagnosis, and then develop an individualized pain management plan, says Dr. Mikhael. (Chronic pain is often associated with conditions such as Lyme disease or fibromyalgia, which can be extremely difficult to diagnose, so you'll want a doctor who listens and considers all your symptoms.) On Curable, patients interact with "Clara," an artificial intelligence bot. Clara teaches the lessons and provides feedback (Seago says users are given a new lesson every few days) based on years of clinical research, according to the website. If you have questions, Seago says you have the option of contacting Curable's support team, but no one on that team is a doctor, so they cannot provide medical advice. While that may be sufficient if you're looking for stress relief, many people with chronic pain have medical issues and this lack of "real person" credentialed knowledge could be dangerous, says Dr. Mikhael.

Heavy-duty prescription painkillers should be your and your doctor's last resort, says Dr. Mikhael. (Did you know that women may have a higher risk for addiction to painkillers?) "You have to attack pain from many different angles," he says. "We use things like physical therapy, exercise, meditation, acupuncture, and a psychologist, in addition to medical approaches like surgery, nerve blocks, or medication." The app only covers one small part of that, he adds.

Not everyone has the money or access to that kind of premium medical treatment, Seago says, adding that many people find the app after years of frustration with traditional doctors. The cost of "$12.99 a month for a Curable subscription is way cheaper than any medical bill," she says. Additionally, Seago says that the statistics are encouraging-70 percent of people who used the app for more than 30 days report some physical relief, with half of those saying their pain is "much better" or "completely gone," according to the company's data.

Seago says that Curable is not about trading medical care for the app, but rather to give you more options you can do at home on your own. So, if you feel like you've exhausted all other avenues to fight your chronic pain, or simply want to reduce some stress and tension in your mind and body, the app may be worth a try. You might not "cure" those sudden migraines at 3 p.m. when that weekly meeting rolls around, but a little mindfulness never hurt anyone.

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