01 December 2010

Scientists investigate technology to benefit chronic pain sufferers living rurally


New technology to help chronic pain sufferers in rural areas manage their condition is being investigated by Scottish scientists.

An estimated 73% of older people in the UK suffer from persistent pain that lasts longer than three months and is difficult to treat.

Sufferers living rurally often have limited or no access to specialist pain services due to their geographical location.

Experts from the University of Aberdeen and UHI, the prospective University of the Highlands and Islands* are leading the development of a device to enable people in this situation to manage their condition independently.

The technology would provide advice and support on, for example, exercises or activities to alleviate chronic pain.

Scientists envisage the technology could be integrated into an appliance commonly found in the home - such as a television or telephone – to make it technically and physically simple for older people to use.

They are also investigating how the device could incorporate an element of social interaction with others, as studies have closely linked chronic pain with depression and poorer emotional wellbeing.

The three year project brings together experts in health and computing science working together within dot.rural- the Research Councils UK (RCUK) Research Hub at the University of Aberdeen which is investigating how digital technologies could transform rural communities, society and business.

Dr Pat Schofield, Director for the Centre for Advanced Studies in Nursing at the University of Aberdeen who has worked in pain management for over 20 years said: “The UK population as a whole is ageing and as a consequence we are likely to see an increase in incidents of chronic pain.  It is suggested that the impact of pain upon quality of life among older adults is high, and is felt more acutely by those living in rural and remote areas who have limited or no access to specialist pain services.

“This, combined with difficulties in providing health and social care services across vast geographical distances, creates a major challenge for the NHS and local government.

“Increasingly they are looking to new technologies to meet this challenge.

“The device we are envisaging would help older people in rural areas living with chronic pain by giving them support and advice on, for example, the exercise and activities they can do or the correct way they should be sitting so as not to aggravate their condition.

“One of the greatest fears for an older person living in a remote location is that the introduction of technology in their heath treatment will result in losing the social interaction they gain from one-to-one visits from health or social care professionals.

“Studies also show that depression and poorer emotional wellbeing are linked closely with chronic pain, and there is the potential that this could be further emphasised for those living in more isolated circumstances.

“As part of the research process we will assess the extent, nature and value of personal and social interaction for those living with chronic pain in remote parts of the country. These findings will then feed into the technology we develop.

“Our aim is to create a device which retains rather than removes personal and social interaction with others – and we’ll look at how, for example, web cam or teleconferencing technology could be integrated into what we create to achieve this.”

Researchers plan to engage with older people  living with chronic pain in rural communities who would input into the design of the technology and test prototypes through its various stages of development.

They will also work closely with NHS, social services and community based care providers who provide health and social care services in remote and rural areas.

Dr Gaener Rodger, Senior Research Fellow in Rural Health Economics at the Centre for Rural Health – a collaborative venture between the University of Aberdeen and UHI Millennium Institute - said: “In the development of a prototype, it is paramount that we take into account the capabilities of those who will be using the device and create something which is both technically and physically simple to use.

“Chronic pain sufferers often face mobility challenges, so it is important to consider this when thinking about the size and style of the device.

“Also cognitive function may decrease in older people which can create a barrier in the uptake of new technology within this group.

“For this reason, we will investigate how the device we develop could be integrated into or added onto a household appliance already found in most homes such as a television or telephone, which people already know, understand and feel comfortable using.”

Chronic pain sufferers living in rural areas who would like to get involved in the project should contact Dr Pat Schofield on 0)1224 554854 or Dr Gaener Rodger on 01463 255900.

Notes for Editors

Case study interviewee as detailed below - available for interview and photo opportunities today (Wednesday December 1) but only in the morning.

Dr Pat Schofield is available for interview in Aberdeen until 2pm and Dr Gaener Rodger is available for interview in Inverness.

Contact Kelly Potts on 01224 272960 to arrange.


Michael Morrison (62), Drumoak

In 1981 Michael Morrison suffered a back injury playing cricket for his local team. At the time he was diagnosed with sacroiliac joint pain – relating to the nerves that join the pelvis to the spine.

Michael spent the next 10 years on painkillers and bed rest, to treat the pain he was experiencing. His condition deteriorated to the point where his wife Rosemary was lifting him in the home to help him bath and shower. In 1991, an MRI scan showed that discs in Michael’s lower spine had burst.

Michael and his wife have spent the last 20 years running a support group for people suffering from chronic pain. Held in Aberdeen, the Grampian Support Group of Pain Association (Scotland), is a registered charity that provides a meeting place for chronic pain sufferers, to help them learn ways to manage their pain, and so lead to a better quality of life.

Michael says he would welcome the introduction of any technology that would help people with chronic pain, especially those in rural areas who are unable to join a support group for one reason or another.

He said: “The support group I am involved with is an important lifeline for those suffering from chronic pain to help them realise they do not have to suffer alone and that they are not the only one in their area that is experiencing this condition. It allows them to learn more about the coping mechanisms that can be used – such as different light exercises, posture and relaxation.

“Those living in remote and rural areas who are, because of their geographical location and their condition, unable to attend such sessions are missing out on a vital support network, and the opportunity to share experiences and swap advice.

“The development of a technological device which would allow chronic pain sufferers living rurally to access advice on methods to help their condition would be fantastic.

“Including the opportunity for some kind of social interaction within the device would also be extremely important. From my own experience, talking with others who actually understand the condition and how it affects your life, helps tremendously in enabling people to deal with their chronic pain and feel less alone and isolated.”

Please note - this project is just beginning therefore there is no prototype of the device as yet.

*The project is led by academics from the University of Aberdeen and the UHI Millennium Institute. It involves collaboration with experts from the University of Dundee, University of Newcastle and the Institute of Rural Health, Wales.

Background on dot.rural:

The University was awarded £11.8 million of funding by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in 2009 to create dot.rural— a hub of researchers conducting research and development into digital technologies to enhance how crucial services such as healthcare and transport are delivered in rural areas across the UK.

For more information visit: www.dotrural.ac.uk/

Centre for Rural Health

Centre for Rural Health was founded by the University of Aberdeen in 2000. Since 2005, CRH has operated as a collaborative venture between the University of Aberdeen (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/) and the UHI Millennium Institute (http://www.uhi.ac.uk/). The CRH mission is to advance knowledge of health and health services in rural and remote communities. CRH has three main research themes: Access and Delivery of services, Rural Health and Technology and Health of Rural people.

For more information visit www.abdn.ac.uk/crh

Issued by the Communications Team
Directorate of External Relations, University of Aberdeen, King's College, Aberdeen
Tel: +44 (0)1224 272014

Contact: Kelly Potts
Issued on: 01 December 2010


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