There are days when I think I’m losing the plot! When my memory fades, I get distracted by random thin—-ooh! is that a cat?!
We all have brain fades, but people with chronic pain have more of them. Sometimes it’s due to the side effects of medication, and often it’s due to poor sleep, or low mood – but whatever the cause, the problem is that people living with chronic pain can find it very hard to direct their attention to what’s important, or to shift their attention away from one thing and on to another.
In an interesting study I found today, Baker, Gibson, Georgiou-Karistianis, Roth and Giummarra (in press), used a brief screening measure to compare the executive functioning of a group of people with chronic pain with a matched set of painfree individuals. The test is called Behaviour Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Adult version (BRIEF-A) which measures Inhibition, Shift, Emotional Control, Initiate, Self-Monitor, Working Memory, Plan/Organize, Task Monitor, and Organization of Materials.
Executive functioning refers to “higher” cortical functions such as being able to attend to complex situations, make the right decision and evaluate the outcome. It’s the function that helps us deal with everyday situations that have novel features – like when we’re driving, doing the grocery shopping, or cooking a meal. It’s long been known that people living with chronic pain experience difficulty with these things, not just because of fatigue and pain when moving, but because of limitations on how well they can concentrate. Along with the impact on emotions (feeling irritable, anxious and down), and physical functioning (having poorer exercise tolerance, limitations in how often or far loads can be lifted, etc), it seems that cognitive impairment is part of the picture when you’re living with chronic pain.
Some of the mechanisms thought to be involved in this are the “interruptive” nature of pain – the experience demands attention, directing attention away from other things and towards pain and pain-related objects and situations; in addition, there are now known to be structural changes in the brain – not only sensory processing and motor function, but also the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which is needed for complex cognitive tasks.
One of the challenges in testing executive functions in people living with chronic pain is that usually they perform quite well on standard pen and paper tasks – when the room is quiet, there are no distractions, they’re rested and generally feeling calm. But put them in a busy supermarket or shopping mall, or driving a car in a busy highway, and performance is not such an easy thing!
So, for this study the researchers used the self-report questionnaire to ask people about their everyday experiences which does have some limitations – but the measure has been shown to compare favourably with real world experiences of people with other conditions such as substance abuse, prefrontal cortex lesions, and ADHD.
What did they find?
Well, quite simply they found that 50% of patients showed clinical elevation on Shift, Emotional Control, Initiate, and Working Memory subscales with emotional control and working memory the most elevated subscales.
What does this mean?
It means that chronic pain doesn’t only affect how uncomfortable it might be to move, or sit or stand; and it doesn’t only affect mood and anxiety; and it’s not just a matter of being fogged with medications (although these contribute), instead it shows that there are clear effects of experiencing chronic pain on some important aspects of planning and carrying out complex tasks in the real world.
The real impact of these deficits is not just on daily tasks, but also on how readily people with chronic pain can adopt and integrate all those coping strategies we talk about in pain management programmes. Things like deciding to use activity pacing means – decision making on the fly, regulating emotions to deal with frustration of not getting jobs done, delaying the flush of pleasure of getting things completed, having to break a task down into many parts to work out which is the most important, holding part of a task in working memory to be able to decide what to do next. All of these are complex cortical activities that living with chronic pain can affect.
It means clinicians need to help people learn new techniques slowly, supporting their generalising into daily life by ensuring they’re not overwhelming, and perhaps using tools like smartphone alarms or other environmental cues to help people know when to try using a different technique. It also means clinicians need to think about assessing how well a person can carry out these complex functions at the beginning of therapy – it might change the way coping strategies are learned, and it might mean considering changes to medication (avoiding opiates, but not only these because many pain medications affect cognition), and thinking about managing mood promptly.
The BRIEF-A is not the last word in neuropsych testing, but it may be a helpful screening measure to indicate areas for further testing and for helping people live more fully despite chronic pain.
Baker, K., Gibson, S., Georgiou-Karistianis, N., Roth, R., & Giummarra, M. (2015). Everyday Executive Functioning in Chronic Pain The Clinical Journal of Pain DOI: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000313