Expressive writing as a therapeutic intervention for people with advanced disease: A systematic review
Background Expressive writing involves writing about stressful or traumatic experiences. Despite trials in people with advanced disease, no systematic review to date has critiqued the evidence on expressive writing in this population. To synthesise the evidence of the effects of expressive writing on pain, sleep, depression and anxiety in people with advanced disease. Methods A systematic review according to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses guidelines. CINAHL, CENTRAL, PsycINFO and PubMed were searched from January 1986 to March 2018. Other sources included clinical data registers and conference proceedings. Studies were included if they were randomised controlled trials that assessed the impact of an intervention involving expressive writing for adults with advanced disease and/or studies involving linguistic analysis on the expressive writing output. Methodological quality was assessed using the Cochrane risk of bias tool and the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool. The Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation tool was used to assess the level of evidence for the outcomes of interest. The protocol of this systematic review has been registered on PROSPERO (CRD42017058193). Results Six eligible studies with a total of 288 participants were identified, including four randomised controlled trials. All of the trials were in cancer and recruited predominantly women. None of the interventions were tailored to the population. Studies had methodological shortcomings and evidence was generally of low quality. Combined analysis of the four trials, involving 214 participants in total, showed no clear difference in the effect of expressive writing on sleep, anxiety or depression compared to an active control. Pain was not evaluated in the trials. In contrast, analysis of the four studies that included linguistic analysis alluded to linguistic mechanisms for potential effects. Conclusion Although the trial results suggest there is no benefit in expressive writing for people with advanced disease, the current evidence is limited. There is a need for more rigorous trials. It would be of benefit first to undertake exploratory research in trial design including how best to measure impact and in tailoring of the intervention to address the specific needs of people with advanced disease.