Faculty Fanfare: Katie Witkiewitz


UNM Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of Center on Alcohol, Substance use, And Addiction (CASAA) Katie Witkiewitz and CASAA Research Professor Matthew Pearson are overseeing two major research projects related to chronic pain and opioid use. 


Funding for both programs recently was renewed by the National Institutes of Health HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-Term) Initiative.


The projects are part of the UNM IMPOWR Center within UNM CASAA, which focuses on ameliorating suffering due to opioid use disorder and chronic pain by taking a holistic and community-centered approach to targeting these commonly co-occurring and often debilitating disorders. 


We all hear about the opioid epidemic, but the crisis of chronic pain is very infrequently discussed and is very much part of the complex problem that got us to an epidemic of drug poisoning deaths,” Witkiewitz said.


The prevalence of chronic pain far exceeds the prevalence of opioid used disorder, and many with opioid use disorder also struggle with chronic pain,” she said. 


However, not many studies have looked at both issues simultaneously, and few treatments to target both chronic pain and opioid use have been developed. Witkiewitz said her team is working to develop and test novel integrated treatments that target both pain and opioid use, using behavioral and medication-based approaches. Along the way, the work aims to change how care is delivered by implementing treatments in real world settings.


The projects were first funded 20 months ago.


“Our initial work has found that most providers are interested in treating both conditions, yet few have the training to do so. We hope that ultimately we will not only have an impact on the lives of people enrolled in our studies, but also on the training and implementation of these programs into the future, beyond the years of the study.”

The first project, the HOPE Study (Healing Opioids and Pain through Engagement), is led by Margo Hurlocker and Megan Kirouac. It focuses on providing treatment for chronic pain and opioid use among individuals receiving buprenorphine in New Mexico and Michigan.  


The other project, the OPTIC Study (Opioid and Pain Treatment in Indigenous Communities), is led by Kamilla Venner and Angel Vasquez. It works within clinics that serve American Indian and Alaska Native peoples in California, Washington, and Minnesota to develop new approaches for screening and treatment of opioid use and chronic pain.  


Witkiewitz said the IMPOWR Center also has pilot projects that are targeting a range of questions, including impact of chronic pain and opioid use among those who are unhoused and pregnant people, as well as predictors of poor outcomes following orthopedic surgery, assessment of stigma, and mobile health approaches to treating pain and opioid use disorder. Funding for the center is about $6 million.


“In addition to the research that we are conducting, we are also focusing a great deal of our efforts on mentoring students, treatment providers, and early career researchers, and increasing the workforce of providers and researchers who are dedicated to ameliorating suffering and improving quality of life among those who have struggled with issues related to chronic pain and opioid use,” she said.


Witkiewitz and her team are looking forward to continuing the research.


“We are thrilled to have received the funding for this renewal to continue this important work and to further develop and implement new programs to serve New Mexicans and others across the United States,” she said.