In September, I started an internship at a chronic pain centre. The pain centre is a multidisciplinary hospital clinic that employs various types of healthcare professionals, including doctors (e.g., rheumatologists, anesthesiologists), nurses, a physiotherapist, and a team of psychologists. About two thirds of pain centre patients see one of the psychologists at some point during their treatment.
Why do chronic pain patients need psychological help?
Pain patients need psych help because chronic pain often impairs functioning significantly, creating considerable distress. Imagine not being able to go to work, walk around the block, or lift your child. Imagine going from playing competitive volleyball to walking with a cane, or from working construction to being unable to stand for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Imagine explaining to family, friends, and colleagues that you have constant pulsating pain shooting down both of your legs, or that you wake up every morning with what feels like a 100-pound weight pressing on your spinal cord. Then imagine years of this--sometimes without a clear diagnosis--and you can see why some pain patients need psychological help.
When pain centre doctors refer a patient to the psychology team, the first thing the psychologist does is a complete psych assessment. The goal of the assessment is to get a global portrait of the patient, and to answer the following questions:
a) What is the state of the patient's mental health? For example, the patient may be depressed, anxious, suffering from post-traumatic stress (e.g., pain onset subsequent to a work or car accident), or self-medicating with alcohol.
b) Did the patient's psychological problems develop before or after pain onset? For example, a depressed pain patient may have been psychologically healthy before pain onset; a patient with a personality disorder has probably had interpersonal problems all his or her life.
c) Do the patient's psychological problems exacerbate, maintain, or perpetuate the pain? For example, an extremely anxious patient may focus excessively on every tiny sensation in his body, fearing increased pain with every movement; his hypervigilance exacerbates the pain, reinforcing his fear of movement and creating a vicious cycle. A severely depressed patient may stay in bed all day for months; her decreased strength and flexibility maintains her pain.
d) Does the patient's psychological state present a barrier to treatment? For example, an extremely depressed patient may need to start taking an antidepressant before he would be able to benefit from therapy. The patient with a dependent personality may rely heavily on pain centre staff and, at some level, fear getting well enough to be discharged. The occasional patient is receiving good worker's compensation benefits or enjoying receiving care and attention from loved ones, and has little interest in getting better; this is a clear barrier to treatment and is important to assess.
We use this information, as well as information about pain history, family history, and work and relationship history, to formulate a treatment plan. The number one goal of psychological treatment at the pain centre is always to increase patients' functioning and improve their quality of life. In individual and group therapy, we help patients increase the number of pleasurable activities in their day, implement a healthy sleeping and eating schedule, and start exercising again if possible. We teach them how to manage stress, and how to communicate effectively with doctors and loved ones about their pain. Most patients' pain is only manageable, not curable, and many patients' pain isn't even diagnosable. Lack of diagnosis is understandably difficult to accept, and a big part of our job is helping patients adjust to this reality. We help them move from grieving their former activities and abilities ("I used to be able to...") to considering available adapted activities ("Now I can...").
Chronic pain eats away at quality of life, and our objective is to increase patients' functioning, restore some level of activity, and help them live better with their pain. When patients start to make some of the changes described above, they often find that their physical health improves and their mood lifts. Pain doesn't go away, but if fades somewhat or feels more manageable.
NB: Psychology is a key element of a multidisciplinary approach to pain, but psych treatment doesn't replace medical intervention--rather, most patients receive concurrent medical and psychological help.