What is really most painful about chronic pain? Understanding the point of pain reaction, and the need for further research into the treatment of chronic pain.
Written by Brendan Mooney Psychologist
How often do people who are living pain free consider what life is like for those experiencing chronic pain?
For many, the thought of living a life of constant pain is unfathomable but what most may not realise is that often it is not the pain itself that is most debilitating.
It is not uncommon for people with chronic pain to be unemployed, taking strong pain medications, financially stressed, unable to engage in most daily domestic tasks, and socially isolated due to being unable to participate in most of the activities of their friends.
One of the most striking features reported by those with chronic pain is a reduced quality of life. People often talk about the ‘things I used to be able to do’ but can no longer. It is typically a very difficult road for those with chronic pain who may also experience associated mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.
The ensuing depression, anger and frustration (and not the physical pain itself) can become a significant burden for the person experiencing chronic pain.
Yet does this reaction to physical pain have to be a given?
Health professionals will often assume that if you have chronic pain this automatically equates to reduced quality of life. The health profession on the whole remains fixed in this paradigm. But these assumptions about pain, that have become the norm in the way we frame our understandings of it, do not take into account that we have a huge amount of agency at the point of our reactions to pain – reactions that, perhaps we need not live at the mercy of. The point of reaction to pain and the choice that we can make at that juncture should be an area of greater study in the field of chronic pain.
This phenomenon applies to many other situations in life. For example, just because someone has a broken down car does not mean that his or her life is not as rich or meaningful as someone who drives a Porsche. To automatically assume that the Porsche owner’s life is metaphorically richer is to believe that our quality of life is determined materially and by the circumstances of our environment. This is ultimately disempowering. Whilst pain is a much more visceral experience than driving a car, it is nevertheless the state of the environment of our body. It is an inner-environment but it is still an environment and one that need not ultimately determine how we feel about ourselves.
New considerations in our approach to treating chronic pain
Whilst there is much available for the treatment of chronic pain, many clients report mixed success. Medication is the main form of treatment for chronic pain followed by physiotherapy depending on the injury. At times due to the injury, people are not able to fully prevent their pain symptoms, and must resign to the fact that they will likely experience pain for the remainder of their lives. Where this is the case, supporting people with their reactions to pain, especially where chronic pain has been diagnosed is key in supporting sustainable psychological wellbeing. By studying the process and prevention of adverse reactions we open up a whole new area in the study of pain management, an area of study which in fact goes beyond ‘management’ and may herald a way forward that could potentially greatly increase quality of life for those experiencing chronic pain. More will be written in an upcoming series of articles on this topic. If you would like to read more be sure to subscribe to receive email updates.
BIOGRAPHY Psychologist Brendan Mooney works with adults, adolescents and children. With a genuine interest in people's well-being, Brendan brings a warmth, practicality and an equality that supports clients to truly address underlying issues and blockages that are preventing them from moving forward.