The last 30 years or more of pain research and management have been exciting for us pain nerds. We’ve learned so much about processes involved in nociception, about the psychology of our responses to nociceptive input, about treatments (that often don’t work terribly well), and we’ve discovered that we (mainly) don’t know what we don’t know. There are some big questions though, that have yet to be answered – and don’t yet share the limelight that neurobiological processes seem to hog. Here are a few of my big questions.
- How do we alter public health policy to move from an acute biomedical model to the broader and more adequate biopsychosocial understanding of illness, as opposed to disease? To expand on this – our current healthcare funding targets procedures, actions taken against “diseases” like an osteoarthritic knee that can be whipped out and replaced with a shiny new one. The person living with that knee doesn’t really feature because what matters is getting rid of a waiting list of people who want new knees. Government funding is allocated to ensure X number of knees are replaced with the unquestioned belief that this is the best way to deal with osteoarthritic knees. Rehabilitation, or the process of helping a person deal with the effect of a disease on their experience (ie illness), is, by comparison, poorly funded, and the outcomes rather more uncertain and complex. It’s hard to count outcomes that include quality of life and participation in the community. Health managers and policy funders find it slippery and complicated – and because a biomedical model is so much easier to understand, and so much simpler to measure, and those awkward “people” factors don’t need to be accommodated – funding seems to be allocated to procedures rather than outcomes. (see Wade & Halligan (2017) for a much more eloquent discussion of these issues).
- When, and how, do we tell someone their pain may be persistent? I’ve scoured the research databases several times over the years, to understand what research has been conducted in the crucial art of communicating to a patient that their pain is either not going to go away, or that it will take a long time before it does. While there is a little research into “giving bad news” this is primarily in the context of telling someone they have a “life-limiting disease”, ie they’re going to die. But nothing, not a single thing, on when we should advise someone, what we should say, what we should do to best help someone deal with the existential impact this kind of message has. In fact, when I’ve raised this question before, people on social media have advised me that if we tell someone their pain is persistent we’re reducing the possibility of recovery – developing an expectation in the person that their pain won’t go, and this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not entirely sure that this is true: that suggests our minds can perpetuate pain, when my understanding is that our beliefs and expectations might influence behaviour rather more. And, putting myself in the shoes of many of the people I’ve seen who live with persistent pain, what is it like to be repeatedly told “we have the answer for you, if you’ll just do…[fill in the gaps]” only to find that it has not helped. How demoralising is that? How heartbreaking? And until we have a treatment with a 100% success rate, we will always have to acknowledge that some people will need to live with their pain for the rest of their years. It’s like a dirty little secret: don’t tell people or — and to be honest, I do not know what might happen! (I couldn’t locate a single paper on how to communicate a chronic pain diagnosis – if anyone has found something, please let me know!)
- How do we handle those clinicians who firmly believe that psychosocial factors are either irrelevant, or are equivalent to psychopathology? How do we help those people understand that describing someone’s cognitive approach to their situation as “catastrophising” does not negate or trivialise their distress? Neither does it mean we are “judging” the person. It simply recognises an association between one way of interpreting an experience – and outcomes that are not positive for the person. Clinicians who work with people who tend to “think the worst” do their best to understand how someone has developed this understanding of their situation, then offer new information, skills and support to help that person feel more confident and less hopeless. A clinician who simply offers sympathy may feel heroic and kind, but might be cementing disability and distress into place. And those who believe that the only factors that need addressing are depression or anxiety – and that’s not their scope of practice – probably could do with some more education about how humans interact, and the “social” aspects of the biopsychosocial approach.
- How do we appraise treatments that might help in the short term, but have unintended consequences? Particularly unintended consequences that occur over time and in areas unrelated to the original treatment. Here’s an example: when someone is offered an injection procedure that reduces pain, yes pain reduces. Yay! This might provide a “window” of opportunity for rehabilitation, return to work, and return to “normal”. And certainly this seems to occur. BUT what happens as the pain returns? If we offer a further procedure, what is the psychological effect of relief on future treatment seeking? Having worked in a pain management service where three-monthly injection procedures were offered, I can say that a core group of people will phone up as soon as their pain returns, and ask for another procedure. If it’s nearly 3 months since the last one, the person gets booked in. Another procedure, another few months go by. This time, it’s 2 months when the person begins to notice pain. Another phone call to ask for another procedure and the person gets booked in – 2 1/2 months since the previous one. Yay! Pain reduces, person goes on… this time six weeks after the procedure the person recognises that the pain is coming back…. phones up and asks for a procedure. This time the person is told “no, you need to wait”. They’re distressed. They’re anxiously waiting, waiting. They see their GP, maybe get some medications. They begin sleeping poorly. Eventually they get another procedure – and oh! the relief! But the experience of distress then relief from a procedure is an incredible learning opportunity. Guess how long before the person comes back for another procedure? And while they’re waiting for it, they’re distressed, not sleeping, disabled – and not ready to “do rehab” because they KNOW there’s a treatment that will “take it all away”. The problems are many, but two strike me: (1) repeated procedures mean those patients can’t be discharged, they remain patients as long as they continue to get the treatments and this eventually takes up so much time and space that fewer new patients can be accepted, and (2) treatments like cortisone injections can only be offered three or so times. What has the person been trained to do when they experience pain? That’s right – seek another procedure. And when this isn’t available, the person has learned to feel anxious about their pain, and to believe there’s little they can do about it themselves. I think this is cruel.
- Finally, how do we move from a clinical model where clinicians believe they have the answer, to a model where we appreciate that the person with pain is the one doing the work in all the hours they’re not with us? Maybe the way we do our treatments might shift from doing things to a person, or telling the person what to do (and expecting that they’ll do it just because we said) to being a coach, a facilitator, a cheerleader, a navigator – someone who is willing to work with rather than do to. And when will our funding models and service delivery models shift from valuing procedures (and therefore paying these people more) to valuing interactions (and therefore paying these people more) – and move away from trying to substitute person-to-person interaction with technology? Our communication capabilities need to be highly refined, highly skilled, incredibly nuanced and selective and flexible, and yet the skill to wield a technique (read – scalpel, manipulation, needle, bathboard – the “what” we do) is valued far more, and trained far more intensively than our communication skills. Unless, of course, we’re psychologists. But we use effective communication all the time – and we need to get better at it so we can more effectively help the person in front of us, who will ultimately have a choice about what they do. When will we be comfortable with recognising just how crucial the so-called “soft skills” of empathy, reflective listening, goal-setting, encouraging, challenging, responding to distress – when will these be funded adequately and when will we realise we ALL use these, not just psychologists.
Big questions, uncertain and complex answers. Can we have meaningful conversations about these without research? And yet these questions are hard to study. But isn’t it time to?
Wade, D. T., & Halligan, P. W. (2017). The biopsychosocial model of illness: a model whose time has come. Clinical Rehabilitation, 31(8), 995–1004. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269215517709890