Chronic Pain

More than 1 in 3 Australians are living with chronic pain, but many people aren’t aware that treatment and support from a psychologist can help them to live better, more comfortable lives.

What is pain?

Pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage” (International Association for the Study of Pain). It is a personal experience that is influenced by a number of factors including biological (e.g., from injured structures), psychological (e.g., coping skills) and social (e.g., family environment) factors.

A person’s experience of pain is said to be chronic (or persistent) when it continues beyond the usual period of healing. This is often defined as pain that persists for three months or longer. Around one in five adults experience chronic pain; more commonly women and older individuals.

Pain is often experienced with other conditions including anxiety disorders (e.g., generalised anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder), mood disorders (e.g., depression), physical conditions (e.g., heart disease, cancer, and arthritis) and substance use disorders (e.g., overuse of prescription medication or alcohol).

Some people who experience chronic pain may have initially had a physical injury (e.g., a muscle sprain), others experience it as a symptom of another condition (e.g., Parkinson’s disease), whilst others are unable to identify why, or how, their pain began. Irrespective of the cause, once pain has become chronic, it is more complex in terms of the impact it has on people’s lives and the treatment it requires.

The impact of chronic pain

Getting timely access to the right treatment for pain is important to reduce the risk of the pain persisting and to minimise the impact of pain on physical, social and psychological wellbeing.

Many adults with chronic pain find it difficult to maintain their usual routines, including attending work and completing study. This can result in frequent or extended absences and a reduction in participation in social, community and sporting activities. Withdrawal from these important activities can lead to low mood, social isolation and inactivity, and in turn can lead to a further increase in pain.

Managing chronic pain can impact all family or household members. Partners/spouses may be required to take regular time off work for appointments, and this can create stress and frustration if treatments do not appear to be working quickly. The impact of chronic pain on the individual with pain may also change their ability to contribute to the household (e.g., complete chores) and impact the way they relate to other members of the household. Adjusting to these changes can be difficult for the individual with pain, as well as for other household members.

Seeking Help

There is strong evidence that engaging with a psychologist with experience in treating pain early in your treatment can help your recovery. Psychologists can help address the barriers to your recovery. Psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals skilled in helping people with a range of concerns related to wellbeing, mental health and behaviour, including the psychological difficulties that come with the experience of pain.

It can be stressful managing tasks and completing activities while in pain. Psychologists are good at helping people develop their self-management and problem-solving skills, focusing on behaviour change and identifying the barriers that may prevent them from making progress.

Psychologists can assist individuals with chronic pain and their family to work towards their optimal functioning by setting goals and maintaining a balanced routine.

Psychologists also play a key role in helping individuals with pain manage their ability to work. They can assist with managing concentration, motivation, behaviour, and emotions while at work and this can be very important for the person’s self-esteem and confidence.

In addition, psychologists can assist with sleep health. Pain can be very disruptive for sleep and lack of sleep can exacerbate the ability to successfully manage pain. Therefore, learning strategies to sleep well is helpful with reducing the pain directly as well as being helpful for managing work and other commitments.