Psychological factors play an important role in the perception, and consequently alleviation, of pain. This is crucial considering that many people seek medical help because they experience some kind of pain. The way patients understand pain will determine how the pain they feel is presented and the best treatment approach to use.
Many medical professionals tend to associate pain with purely biological factors. They regard pain as a sensory reaction to a particular injury. However, there are instances where pain may even be treated as a separate disease and not just a result of another condition. Considering that about 116 million Americans live with pain, the condition poses the biggest public health problem in the country. The Institute of Medicine released a report showing Americans spend about $635 billion annually in treating both chronic and acute pain.
However, there are subtle but powerful ways of dealing with pain because the problem involves more than physical sensation. For example, patients suffering from chronic pain often experience emotional effects. They tend to experience a sense of helplessness, anxiety and depression, which make the pain experienced even worse. Understanding the psychology of pain also helps in managing acute pain.
The Link between Emotions and Pain
Emotions are processed in the limbic system, which determines the level of pain experienced for different noxious stimuli. The right ventral prefrontal cortex and cingulate gyrus play a central part in the way people emotionally respond to pain. Different factors activate these centers, including social rejection.
The way people perceive pain depends on the context in which the pain occurs. For example, soldiers have suffered serious wounds in battles but reported only feeling twinges of pain.
People who pay more attention to their pains often suffer more. Being over-vigilant to bodily sensations amplifies them so much that they become painful. This consequently means one way of managing pain is to use suitable distractions. The distraction may be such a simple thing as talking with the patients about subjects in which they are deeply interested.
The Basics of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT uses psychological and social behavior to manage pain in three main phases:
- 1. Providing awareness of the biopsychosocial link in pain.
- 2. Teaching suitable methods for managing pain, including distraction strategies, imagery techniques, cognitive restructuring, pleasant activity scheduling, goal setting, problem-solving and relaxation techniques.
- 3. Applying the skills learned in the second phase in real-life situations.
Psychological management of pain also involves active coping strategies as opposed to avoidant ones. Sufferers acknowledge their problems and take proactive roles in solving them. For example, they may plan activities depending on either physical or emotional stress. They may also seek professional help if necessary.
Peter Wendt is a freelance writer in Texas who recently has been dealing with a relative who was suffering uneplainable back pain. He suspected other factors like depression were in play and consulted several specialists on pain management techniqueswhich are summarized in this article.