Cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain supported by artificial intelligence can yield the same results as programs delivered by therapists, a new study shows.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective alternative to opioid painkillers for managing chronic pain. But getting patients to complete those programs is challenging, especially because psychotherapy often requires multiple sessions and mental health specialists are scarce.

AI-supported therapy requires substantially less clinician time, making it more accessible to patients, the researchers report.

“Chronic pain is incredibly common: back pain, osteoarthritis, migraine headaches, and more. Because of pain, people miss work, develop depression, some people drink more alcohol than is healthy, and chronic pain is one of the main drivers of the opioid epidemic,” says John Piette, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and senior research scientist at the Veterans Administration.

“We’re very excited about the results of this study, because we were able to demonstrate that we can achieve pain outcomes that are at least as good as standard cognitive behavioral therapy programs, and maybe even better. And we did that with less than half the therapist time as guideline-recommended approaches.”

Traditionally, CBT is delivered by a therapist in 6 to 12 weekly in-person sessions that target patients’ behaviors, help them cope mentally, and assist them in regaining functioning.

“Unfortunately, many people with pain don’t have access to these programs, and multiple weekly sessions is a deal breaker for people who have competing demands like jobs and family responsibilities,” Piette says.

As a consequence, some patients look to medications to treat their symptoms or simply drop out of care before achieving benefit, he says.

For the study in JAMA Internal Medicine, Piette and colleagues recruited 278 patients with chronic back pain and randomized them into two groups. One group received standard CBT through 10 45-minute telephone sessions with a therapist. The other group received the AI-supported therapy, in which they reported their symptoms via brief, daily automated calls.

Read the full article about AI and therapy innovation by Nardy Baeza Bickel at Futurity.