When coming to terms with a chronic pain problem, one of the important steps involves obtaining a diagnosis that fits with both the individual’s personal experience of their pain, and also their knowledge (drawn from what is available in the general population). If the label doesn’t square with their experience, people continue searching until they find something that does.
There has been an enormous wave of excitement about giving people good “pain education”. I’ve always been a bit anxious about the term “education”, because it can so often mean giving an information dump, leaving the person being “educated” with little or no relevant knowledge about their personal concerns – and it’s the individual and unique concerns that influence how a person interprets what is happening, and how they respond. As a result, I prefer “helping people to develop a personal pain formulation” or “reconceptualising” their pain. Putting the pedantics aside, it seems really important for health professionals to not only understand what people with pain already know about their health condition, but also to understand how people interpret what they’re told – if they’re told anything.
In this study, 75 people with neuropathic pain were asked to sort a series of statements about neuropathic pain according to their level of agreement with them. This is known as Q-methodology. The sorted statements are then analysed to identify common features amongst them. Four factors were identified:
- Neuropathic pain is a nervous system problem, psychology influences the pain experience and acceptance, and being open to psychological interventions – this group of respondents had tried psychological treatments, their pain was on average about 6 – 7 years.
- Neuropathic pain is nerve damage, psychology is irrelevant in pain experience, neutral about psychological treatments – this group of people had not tried psychological treatments, but had tried surgery and medications.
- Neuropathic pain is irreparable nerve damage, symptom management is needed, psychological factors play a part in pain perception but psychological treatment is not OK – this group of individuals had pain for an average of 10 years, and they had used breathing, positive thoughts, medications and physical treatments.
- Neuropathic pain cause should be identified, psychological influences may play a part, and treatment can include both medical and psychological – this group had pain for an average of 1 -2 years, and they had tried a range of medications, physical methods, yoga, meditation and complementary therapies.
The authors point out several limitations of this study – people were not recruited on the basis of an particular characteristics, there could be a number of recruitment biases, and they were all identified via online recruitment processes, therefore it’s hard to generalise. What it does indicate is that there is no coherent biopsychosocial explanation put forward by participants, they appeared to have received very little explanation about their problem, and this affected their readiness for psychological or self management interventions.
Another interesting point is how many of these participants, across all the four factor groups, described experiencing being given psychosomatic explanations of their pain. The authors write :”Across all accounts, participants’ comments indicated that they had received psychosomatic explanations of their pain and had been distressed and offended, consistent with other studies which use open-ended methods to sample patients’ experiences. (p. 353).” The influence of psychological factors was found to be associated more with adjusting to chronic pain, rather than to developing an integrated model of pain. Factor 1 were the only group to endorse the notion of acceptance, or learning to live with pain – and the groups in Factors 3 and 4 were strongly against the idea that pain could be lived with.
I find this study interesting, not so much in what it has discovered, but rather more in terms of the discussion about psychological factors and medical factors – but nothing on social factors. I find myself wondering again whether we have a biopsychological model of pain, rather than a more complex biopsychosocial model.
That being said, I agree with a point made in the conclusion: people with chronic pain value a coherent explanation for their pain, it helps resolve their worry and enables them to approach their pain differently. The problem facing people with chronic pain is how to access evidence-based and accessible information about neuropathic (or indeed any type of) pain. Often people find out about neuropathic via biomedical models, and they rarely get exposed to the complexity of a biopsychological model, let alone a biopsychosocial one.
We desperately need to understand the best ways to personalise an explanation for an individual with chronic pain. I think a case formulation approach is the most useful, but I’ve found that many clinicians think this takes “too long” and is “too complex”. I wonder about this. A formulation might take a couple of sessions, but it’s a lot less expensive and has lower risk than surgery.
In light of the very limited range of interventions for people with neuropathic pain, perhaps taking the time to respond to the person’s unique questions about their pain would be time and money well spent.
People who have chronic pain are often very reluctant to consider the influence of psychological factors on their pain, reflecting their fear that by accepting this, their pain is being dismissed as “not real”, or not legitimate. This means people may not accept (or indeed be referred for) psychological interventions. Treatment approaches based on a cognitive behavioural approach have good evidence to support them, but they don’t do much good if people are not ready for them, or even referred for them.
Martin, S., Daniel, C., & Williams, A. (2014). How do people understand their neuropathic pain? A Q-study PAIN®, 155 (2), 349-355 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2013.10.021