Conversational Agents for Chronic Pain Management

Chronic pain is a serious public health issue affecting approximately 30-40% of the US adult population. The widespread use of opioid pain medication has contributed to a national epidemic of addiction in the US; more than 165,000 deaths occurred between 1999 and 2014 due to opioid overdose. As such, there is an urgent need to develop and deploy non-addictive chronic pain management methods.

Toward this, recent studies have identified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to be a promising alternative for long-term pain management. The efficacy of MBSR depends on regular practice and thus, longitudinal adherence is essential for effective pain management. However, ensuring adherence and engagement to MBSR is a serious challenge and remains as a key barrier in translating it from clinical settings to real-world practice.

In this project, we aim to address this compliance and adherence issue by using a conversational agent. Specifically, we propose to leverage the Amazon Alexa ecosystem to develop an interactive, personalized virtual coach for delivering MBSR. Based on prior research, we believe that such a virtual coach will engender trust and social rapport, resulting in sustained high engagement over a long period of time. Furthermore, our proposed approach is highly scalable and can improve access to MBSR practices, including for those in rural communities.



Support for this research is provided by a seed grant sponsored by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI).


Sanjana Mendu
Sebrina Doyle Fosco
Stephanie Lanza
Saeed Abdullah