The two faces of pain assessment


This week’s focus is on assessing or evaluating or getting to understand the experience of pain.  There are many reasons to assess someone’s pain, from trying to diagnose the kind of pain they have to attempting to see if someone is ‘real’ or not!  And shades in between.  I’m going to focus on ‘genuine’ reasons to understand someone’s pain experience rather than policing whether the person is a good actor or not, because as I’ve said before, I don’t think very often about people ‘faking’, and because I think it might be more helpful to try to see the world from the person’s eyes first.

So, given that pain is a multidimensional experience, why do I say there are two faces to pain assessment? Well the two I’m thinking of are:
(1) the experience of pain itself – location, quality, intensity etc, along with the beliefs and risk factors that influence the ‘suffering’ component of the ‘onion ring’ model described by Loeser and others.
(2) the impact of pain on function – disability, sleep loss, effect on relationships, work and so on.

I’m going to leave the first aspect for a while, and spend some time looking at the impact of pain on the individual and his/her family/community, but before I do I want to consider some basic concepts relevant to pain assessment that are essential before even beginning to think about the ‘how’ of assessment!

Firstly, all pain assessment is subjective. What that means is that as outside observers, we cannot determine whether the person is actually experiencing what they say (or indicate) they are experiencing. We can’t reliably establish whether someone is or is not carrying out activities to their full capacity. We can’t accurately determine whether a certain number of pain behaviours is the ‘correct’ amount of behaviour for the amount of nociception present.

Secondly, all behaviour is subject to the effects of learning and reinforcement that are well-established in the psychological literature (and in any two-year-old child wanting sweets!). As a result, it’s difficult to tell whether someone is behaving in a certain way because of years of learning within their family context, or whether it’s more immediate social environment demand characteristics that are influencing how the person is performing. We would all probably do more for someone that was holding a gun to our heads than for someone who looked bored (and we knew the results were going to determine whether we got some money!).

Thirdly, what we will or won’t do is also influenced by what we think we can or can’t do – and what we anticipate may happen afterwards, or what we experienced last time we attempted. A recent study of functional capacity evaluations found that even for people without chronic pain, a majority of participants experienced elevated pain the day after completing an FCE, so my guess is that some people who have chronic pain and who have completed a previous FCE may modify their performance at the next one. Our beliefs, attitudes, predictions, memories and so on determine what we are prepared to do in any context. When we look at the impact of pain on function, we need to remember this and take these factors into account.

The final area to consider today is the effect of context on performance. In many ways this is a summary of the three previous areas I’ve mentioned, but bear with me as I explain.
Many people with chronic pain report that they can carry out an activity in one setting, once, but when asked to carry it out repeatedly, and in a work setting, for example, they struggle. In the context of the real world, with all the social cues, cognitive load and need to persist and maintain activity over time, performance becomes variable. This doesn’t just happen for people with persistent pain mind you – let’s think of those Olympic athletes who may have performed well ‘at home’, but in the context of The Olympic Games in China in Front of All Those People – performance may well be very different.

I’ve only mentioned a few of the confounding factors that influence how pain may impact on a person’s daily activity in life and roles. I haven’t even started to use references – but you can bet if you come back this week, there will be more!

2 comments

    1. You’ve very welcome Abbey. I have only my own experience to go by, but every voice added to the debate opens an other opportunity to think about chronic pain and the effect on individuals, their families and the community. Thanks for dropping by!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s