Jamie Rhudy on Native American chronic pain research

Dr. Rhudy is leading groundbreaking research on the connections between discrimination and chronic pain within the Native American community.

Jamie Rhudy and his team’s research on chronic pain in Native Americans is groundbreaking work that pulls back the veil on discriminative policies that have led to Native Americans experiencing chronic pain at higher rates than any other ethnic group. The Collegian was able to sit down with Dr. Rhudy and explore his team’s past findings while also discussing future plans for a $2.7 million research grant received in the past year.

Dr. Rhudy’s work in pain management started in 2010, when the first review article about pain disparities in the Native American community was released in the Journal of PAIN’s 2010 volume. Dr. Rhudy now sits as an associate editor for the Journal of PAIN. Upon reading this article, Dr. Rhudy was inspired to kick up collaborations with his colleague Joanna Shadlow and continue his work in pain mechanisms that he started in graduate school.

This grant-funded study conducted by Dr. Rhudy and his colleagues is his fourth time leading research on the issue. When reflecting on current findings of Native American pain rates, Dr. Rhudy states “that Native Americans were indeed developing chronic pain at higher rates.” Dr. Rhudy and his colleagues have also found that “we could predict who is going to develop chronic pain by experienced discrimination, experienced trauma, how much psychological stress someone reported and then some emotional, cognitive, and behavioral factors.”

Through this new study, Dr. Rhudy and his team intend to add a top-down view to the societal level discriminatory practices that contribute to Native Americans experiencing chronic pain at three times the rate of non-Hispanic white people. The first step in Dr. Rhudy’s lab is to conduct geocoding on participants, in which they take a respondent’s living history and compare it to both Census and Environmental Protection Agency data to determine exposure rates to elements “indicative of structural racism and discrimination.” The team’s current findings suggest that neighborhoods that are primarily minorities have also been connected to exposure “to a lot of environmental hazards, toxins, waste, noise, pollution, ozone, and cancer causing agents like lead.” The gathering of address history also allows for Dr. Rhudy’s team to examine confounding markers of racism and discrimination such as educational inequality, access to food, and income inequality and how these factors allow for a greater risk of developing chronic pain later in life.

With the new grant, Dr. Rhudy and his colleagues are able to take a look at the greater scope of chronic pain while also honing in on the role of stress and its relation to physiological systems. In addition to the stress and cultural factors behind chronic pain, Dr. Rhudy’s team will also examine cultural resiliency factors Native Americans have that “buffer against the effects of structural racism and discrimination.”

Looking to the future, Dr. Rhudy wants his work to be able to shed light on the impacts of discrimination for the people that are forced through it within our society. He believes that our “society focuses too much on pharmaceuticals and less on behavioral kind of interventions that help us treat chronic pain.” Alluding to the development of holistic medicine in modern health, Dr. Rhudy acknowledges that there is often not a “magic bullet pill” to fix an issue as his findings suggest “psychological factors play a pretty important role” and that by not “addressing that piece of it, then you’re missing a huge component of not only the cause, but the maintenance of chronic pain.”

In order to take such a broad perspective on the psychological perspective, Dr. Rhudy’s team has grown to include Travis Lowe, a sociologist at TU; William Lavallo, a specialized stress consultant; and continuing connections with the Native American community through an Indigenous advisory council. Dr. Rhudy and his colleagues meet with the advisory council quarterly in order to receive input from the Native American community to create engaged participants. Dr. Rhudy says that the advisory council brings “a lot of experience to the table, including personal experiences with racism and discrimination within the Native American community.”

Dr. Rhudy’s research will have an impact felt all throughout the healthcare industry as his team conducts work that is bound to change lives. It is research like his that will ultimately lead to the addressment of systematic issues throughout America.

Post Author: Adam Porterie