A new mobile app developed by researchers at Brown University’s brain science institute is looking to find what happens in the brain during the transition from acute to chronic pain.
The SOMA app, developed by psychiatry and human behavior professor Dr. Frederike Petzschner, is designed to directly support individuals with chronic pain and it gathers data that could help researchers predict how someone’s pain becomes chronic. The app is free and available on the App Store and Google Play Store.
Q: How does the SOMA app work?
Petzschner: SOMA is a pain management tool developed at Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science that focuses on tracking your pain levels. We don’t just track intensity, which is important, but also look at unpleasantness or interference, and users can track how their daily activities, medications, and treatments impact their pain over time. The “trend” section of the app allows you to display how these activities and treatments are influencing your pain in both the short-term and in the long run.
How much time should a user be spending on the app?
It’s really only a few minutes per day. There’s quick check-ins that take a user about one or two minutes to complete. And then we have an “evening routine,” where you can look back and your day and look forward to the next, which takes only about three minutes.
Some potential users might be asking why they would need an app to track the pain they are already in. So what can they, as patients, do with their data?
We show you your pain trends, and you can show that information [through the app’s summary screen] to your doctor right on the screen. We’re also thinking of adding a feature where you can export your own data as a PDF and send that to your doctor.
But the other aspect of this is people think they know when they’re in pain. When we start a new treatment, they’re not thinking about how it’s impacting their pain in the long run. A classic example of this is when someone has depression and they take an SSRI. You won’t see that much of an effect in the first three weeks, but over time, you will start to see changes.
Who is the ideal user for this app?
This is where we differentiate. We don’t exclusively focus on chronic pain, but also focus on people with acute pain. They are equally important to monitor because there’s a high risk of transitioning from acute to chronic pain, but there aren’t many researchers who are looking at these individuals.
Can you give me an example?
If you have a rib fracture, there’s a 40 percent probability that you might transition toward chronic pain right after the fracture or right after surgery. So we are trying to provide a tool for individuals who just had an injury and they want to monitor their recovery as well as those who already have chronic pain.
When you have an injury, what does our current medical care system get wrong when it comes to pain?
When you have an injury or surgery, you’re reporting pain right away. The first thing they usually do is prescribe a painkiller. And then if you go back to the doctor, which is often weeks later, you’re usually seeing a different doctor, reporting the pain again. They might be assigned to a physical therapist. That person is, again, a different person and doesn’t know your history of pain. Part of why the pain journey is so long is also because the doctors do not communicate. They aren’t tracking the dynamics of pain early on when it’s most important.
How do you want this app to change these flaws?
We are trying to do two things: start a large study now where we are predicting out a sample of who is at risk of transitioning toward chronic pain and also look at how to treat people who experience pain both acutely and chronically.
There has always been a large focus on drug treatments. But opioids have not been effective in treating chronic pain, and in fact, can actually make it worse. When you get off an opioid, you can become hypersensitive, which means you can have increases in pain because your system has been flooded with opioids for a long period of time. That’s despite all the other negative effects of opioids.
From my perspective, we should be including cognitive behavioral interventions when looking at pain treatments. At SOMA, we want to add an intervention program to the app [which could roll out within a year].
Researchers and clinicians can also request to use data for free from SOMA. Why is that?
One of the biggest problems we have in pain science is that we’re lacking the types of large-scale data sets that give us new insights on pain where we can look at what causes flare ups, the dynamics of the injuries, and if there are gender differences. It really hinders us from understanding pain better. We’ve spent two years building this platform and making it user friendly. We didn’t want to have this closed product, but wanted to build something that could actually have real-world impact because [scientists] have been living in silos for a long time. The data is free for researchers and clinicians, they just have to reach out.
This is made possible by the institute’s new Brainstorm Program, which focuses on the translation of brain science into real-world applications that have a lasting impact on the mental health field.
How do you protect user’s privacy?
A lot of development went into the security and user privacy of this app. We’re not acquiring your name, your exact location, and every other thing that nearly every app now collects. We only ask for someone’s email address [which is not shared].
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.