For most people pain is an unpleasant, but necessary part of life.
For many people pain is our body’s way of protecting itself from damage; for others, pain becomes something else, a persistent or chronic experience that can have a strong negative impact on their life.
Some sources estimate that by the year 2050 there could be up to 5 million people in Australia experiencing chronic pain1. That’s 2 x the current population of Brisbane2.
Based on this evidence, it is clear that chronic pain management is an important topic that deserves a lot of attention.
How Chronic Pain Affects your Life
People experiencing chronic pain find that it can affect all areas of their lives, from their ability to work, play with their children, or even feel comfortable spending time alone doing something they love.
Coupled with everything that can come with a complex health condition, such as frequent doctor appointments, financial concerns, unsuccessful treatments, and lots of medication, it’s no surprise that many people experiencing chronic pain also experience a lot of psychological distress.
There are also a number of very frustrating myths or misconceptions about chronic pain that can make the experience even worse. Many of the clients that I’ve worked with who experience chronic pain said that the one they found most frustrating, is when people thought they were faking it, or told them that their pain wasn’t real, that it was all in their head.
Although the brain plays a significant role in our experience of pain and interpreting the signals that the body sends, it doesn’t mean that the pain is made up or imaginary.
Seeing a psychologist to help with pain management does not mean that the pain is not real, or that it’s “all in your head”. The brain plays an extensive role in experiences of both acute and chronic pain, and research has shown that understanding how our body processes pain, can actually help reduce pain levels3.
For a clear and humorous description of the way we experience pain and the brain’s role in that experience I recommend Butler and Moseley’s book “Explain Pain (2nd ed.),” 4 which provides an easy to understand, evidence-based account of pain, and describes how understanding pain can also help to reduce pain. If you don’t like reading or can’t access the book, check out Moseley’s Ted talk5 for a quick overview of the process.
So where do psychologists come in you ask? Because the brain is an essential part of how we process pain, we can also use the brain to help cope with pain, and work towards living successfully with chronic pain. Below are just a few examples of how psychology may be helpful to someone experiencing chronic pain.
Areas of Pain Management That Psychology Can Help With:
- Stress management – Pain and stress are linked in many ways in the brain, so as a result, learning to manage stress can help reduce pain flare ups and improve overall wellbeing6.
- Addressing unhelpful thoughts – There are a number of unhelpful thought patterns that have been demonstrated to maintain pain, so addressing these thought patterns can help reduce the negative impact of pain7.
- Addressing feeling helpless or stuck – By examining what’s important to you and setting achievable goals that reflect these values, it is possible to reintroduce a sense of purpose in your life.
- Addressing sleep problems – Sleep is difficult for those with constant pain or pain flare ups, but it is often made worse by bad sleep habits, including stressing about not getting enough sleep.
- Relationships – Chronic pain can affect your mobility and functioning as well as your mood and patience, which means that it often affects your relationships as well.
- Medication – Many people experience negative side effects from medication for their pain management. Working alongside your doctor, it is possible to come up with psychological strategies to help cope with and manage pain in such a way that allows you to reduce usage of opioids and other harsh pain medications.
As you can see, there are many different ways to approach management of chronic pain and work towards improving quality of life for those experiencing chronic pain. If you would like some tips on how to improve quality of life with chronic pain, you will find more information in my article “Tips and Support for Chronic Pain Sufferers“.
Author: Nikki Crossman, B Psych Science (Hons).
Nikki Crossman is a Master of Psychology (sport and exercise) candidate at the University of Queensland, passionate about the benefits of sport and exercise for mental health. She takes a holistic approach to wellbeing that recognises the strong connection between our body and our mind, and draws on evidence-based therapies such as CBT and Interpersonal therapy.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
- Access Economics. (2007). The high price of pain: The economic impact of persistent pain in Australia. Sydney: MBF Foundation.
- Louw, A., Diener, I., Butler, D. S., & Puentedura, E. J. (2011). The effect of neuroscience education on pain, disability, anxiety, and stress in chronic musculoskeletal pain. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 92(12), 2041-2056.
- Butler, D. S., & Moseley, G. L. (2013). Explain Pain 2nd Edn. Noigroup Publications.
- Hannibal, K. E., & Bishop, M. D. (2014). Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: a psychoneuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Physical therapy, 94(12), 1816-1825.
- Quartana, P. J., Campbell, C. M., & Edwards, R. R. (2009). Pain catastrophizing: a critical review. Expert review of neurotherapeutics, 9(5), 745-758.