AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Nursing has begun researching fatigue and stress management in chronic illness patients after receiving a $1.23 million research grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research earlier this year.
Stress and fatigue are detrimental to people experiencing chronic illness and can prolong or worsen their symptoms. Poor rest and high stress can also cause various symptoms such as weight gain, anxiety and magnification of pain — particularly in individuals suffering from chronic illnesses, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
UMass was one of only six research centers nationwide to receive this grant, according to Cynthia Jacelon, a professor of nursing.
The UMass College of Nursing used the grant to create the “UManage Center,” an umbrella term that refers to the interdisciplinary team working on the project. The team hopes to create a physical space for the UManage Center in the coming years.
“The hope is to move in the direction to create a physical space. We want to involve the community with focus groups targeted on sleep and fatigue,” said Annette Wysocki, the assistant dean for research at the College of Nursing.
The grant will also fund 10 interdisciplinary pilot research studies over the next five years. Innovative sleep monitoring devices are at the center of this research study.
“We want to use technology to help inform people so they can figure out how to self-manage their symptoms,” Wysocki said.
The research aims to help patients better manage their symptoms between hospital and doctor visits.
Chronic illness patients experience between four and ten symptoms, according to Wysocki, which complicates treatment efforts. Developing new technologies will help patients better understand their symptoms at home.
The nurse-led interdisciplinary teams will collaborate with other on-campus departments and use the laboratories and equipment in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences on campus.
The grant will provide UMass nursing students real-world opportunities to gain experience in the medical field.
“It is going to, if successful … enhance the amount of work that faculty can do in this area. There will be more classes, space and resources to bring to UMass to maintain expertise,” said Rebecca Spencer, a sleep expert supporting researchers in the study.
Wysocki said she hopes this research will lead to partnerships with companies and subsequent funding to develop more devices to help patients in other areas.
The first two research projects are headed by nursing faculty Rachel Walker and Karen Kalmakis.
Walker’s team will help cancer survivors monitor and self-manage persistent fatigue through the development of a wearable eye-tracking technology to provide patient feedback.
Kalmakis’ team will study physiological stress indicators such as cortisol in sweat as an indicator of stress to help patients improve their sleep hygiene.
“The biggest danger when adding stress and fatigue to an existing condition is that it amplifies health problems. It is harder to take care of yourself when you are sleep deprived,” Spencer said. “Sleep health helps us make good decisions.”
To try to quantify rest, researchers will place electrodes on patients’ heads to gather technical data on sleep stages. A non-invasive FitBit style watch will be used in an actigraphy test which monitors patterns of awakeness and rest over a period of several nights. Patients will also answer questionnaires about their rest habits.
According to Wysocki, the goal is to use this data to enable patients to take charge of their symptoms — whether that be adjusting pain medication dosage, engaging in physical activity or practicing mindfulness techniques like meditation and deep breathing.
Studies show equal outcomes for treating insomnia from a non-medical perspective as compared to a medicinal approach. Spencer says she wants to attack fatigue by focusing on behavior change and intervention.
“If the data shows patients consistently sleep short or go to bed late, it helps us to say: Here are things you can change about your day in order to go to bed early,” said Spencer.
Sleep and stress issues can also negatively impact a patient’s physical symptoms. Wysocki, who has an extensive background in wound care, said these factors “can also thin your skin and create problems with healing.”
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