While a biopsychosocial ‘model’ (or sociopsychobiological framework) has been widely adopted when attempting to understand pain, many critics argue that it just doesn’t give clinicians a clear way to integrate or prioritise clinical information and generate treatments. The ‘model’ itself has been challenged from many angles – it’s too complex, too simplistic, relies on Bertalanffy’s “general systems theory” which has itself been challenged, it’s too “fuzzy”, and of course there are many who think that psychological and sociocultural aspects of human experience are epiphenomena while will ultimately be boiled down to cellular or biological processes. Nevertheless, this framework also has considerable appeal, is widely adopted and I think can provide us with some useful heuristics for thinking about how and why a person presents in the way they do at the time they do – and helps us consider what can be done to reduce distress and disability.
Where do we start with this approach?
The first place I start with my discussions is to ask “Tell me about your problems with pain.” What I’m focusing on in this discussion is when did the person first recognise that there was “something wrong” – and then what did they do about it.
Fabricio Benedetti talks about the neurobiological processes involved in a person detecting that he or she is “unwell”. He writes: “Physiology and neuroscience have a lot to say about feeling sick, for it involves sensory systems that convey different pieces of information related to peripheral organs and apparatuses, as well as brain regions that lead to conscious awareness.” (Benedetti, 2013). To me, this involves biological, psychological and social factors for when does a person recognise that “conscious awareness” means something? Benedetti goes on to say “The second step is what makes a patient “seek relief,” a kind of motivated behavior that is aimed at suppressing discomfort. This behavioral repertoire is not different from that aimed at suppressing hunger or thirst, and the brain reward mechanisms are crucial in this regard” (Benedetti, 2013). Judgements about what internal experiences mean may begin with a reflex response (automatic and based on evolutionary demands to keep safe) but what we DO about those experiences depends a great deal on what we learn from others. The people we most draw from are those around us – mother, father, siblings, people in our immediate family and extended family. And over time, the social nature of humans means we also consider the community in which we live – and wider with social media! Judgements, or appraisals (thoughts and beliefs about the meaning of these internal experiences) are, ‘fraid to say, psychological in nature. While the influences on thoughts and beliefs are – you guessed it – social.
So, how can a clinician use this information? Where’s the research? Come on – science it up woman!!
If it’s not enough to know that there are neurobiological factors underpinning our internal experience, and motivated behaviour is tied up with reward systems, then what else can we use to understand the processes of feeling ill and seeking treatment? To me, the natural first step is to look at learning mechanisms. Yep, very basic Psych 101 classical and operant conditioning mechanisms. Add in a dash of social learning theory (how we learn from watching and talking with others) and we have some rather useful experimentally-validated hypotheses to work with.
What do I mean by this?
Well, at least part of clinical reasoning is a process of recognising potential explanations for the phenomena we see. My take on clinical reasoning is that we can use case formulation to help generate a series of hypotheses to explain why a person is coming to see us in this way at this time – and what might be maintaining their current situation. In case formulation we can use “abductive reasoning” (recognising a potential “rule” or class of behaviour from a specific observation – eg we can postulate that a person’s sleep disturbance might be due to low mood, sleep apnoea, habit, operant conditioning, or a new baby, and we’ll probably collect some more information to test each of these possible explanations before deciding on the most probable reason). If we know a whole bunch of research around what humans do when they’re feeling sore and vulnerable, we are able to come up with a bunch of possible reasons for someone noticing they feel unwell, judging it in a certain way, and then deciding to do something about it.
For example, we know from research studies that people who have had adverse experiences in early childhood have a greater risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain (eg Afari, Ahumada, Wright, Lostoufi, Golnari, Reis & Cuneo, 2014; Jones, Power & Macfarlane, 2009). We also know that those people may develop weaker attachments to others and so feel vulnerable in relationships where high levels of trust are needed – also linked to the presence of persistent pain – and adversely affecting outcomes from multidisciplinary pain management programmes (Anno, Shibata, Ninomiya, Iwaki, Kawata, Sawamoto et al., 2015; Kowal, McWilliams, Peloquin, Wilson, Henderson & Fergusson, 2015).
These factors might mean that when we ask someone about their theory for why they have persistent pain, or what they think is going on, we might keep an ear open to listen for threats to relationships around the time of the onset of the problem dealing with pain (especially if the pain has been present for a while but the person hasn’t been looking for treatment until just now). We might also be thinking hard about the neurobiological effects of relationship breakups and how this might impinge on either coping (eg accessing strategies to manage effectively during painful experiences) or on stress responses (eg heightened vigilance to threat).
Two things: (1) This doesn’t mean persistent pain is “psychological” – it’s not, but these experiences might set the scene for neurobiological changes, both in “set-point” for threat and in resilience for dealing with threat. (2) This also doesn’t mean that we need to deal with the response to relationship stress ourselves – it might mean we listen respectfully, and bear this vulnerability in mind during our interactions, being careful not to threaten trust, and work hard to retain a sense of warmth/empathy as well as competence for this person.
Next time: More on learning theory and how these might influence the way we look at why someone seeks treatment with us, and why at this time, and what may be maintaining the behaviours we see.
Afari N, Ahumada SM, Wright LJ, Mostoufi S, Golnari G, Reis V, Cuneo JG., (2014). Psychological trauma and functional somatic syndromes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychosomatic Medicine, 76, 2-11.
Anno, K., Shibata, M., Ninomiya, T., Iwaki, R., Kawata, H., Sawamoto, R., . . . Hosoi, M. (2015). Paternal and maternal bonding styles in childhood are associated with the prevalence of chronic pain in a general adult population: The hisayama study. BMC Psychiatry, 15(1), 181. doi:10.1186/s12888-015-0574-y
Benedetti, F. (2013). Placebo and the new physiology of the doctor-patient relationship. Physiological Reviews, 93(3), 1207-1246. doi:10.1152/physrev.00043.2012
Jones GT, Power C, Macfarlane GJ, (2009). Adverse events in childhood and chronic widespread pain in adult life: Results from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study. Pain 143:92-96.
Kowal, J., McWilliams, L. A., Péloquin, K., Wilson, K. G., Henderson, P. R., & Fergusson, D. A. (2015). Attachment insecurity predicts responses to an interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38(3), 518-526. doi:10.1007/s10865-015-9623-8