A New Approach to Dealing with Chronic Pain

By Michael Sytniak, Ph.D.

Chronic pain, which can be defined as pain that lasts longer than three months, affects an estimated 100 million Americans. Unfortunately, many people suffering from chronic pain think their treatment should just focus on physical causes. The reality is that it also needs to take into account psychological and social issues. And that’s where a therapist like me can come in.

I’ve been a practicing pain psychologist for the past 24 years, so I understand the role therapy can play in treating chronic pain. And I also understand that it should be a part of the treatment plan from the very beginning.

Here are some ideas I often share with chronic pain sufferers:

  • Your chronic pain experience is a combination of biological, psychological and social factors — and it can be helped by addressing those three elements.
  • If you’re feeling frustrated that physical treatments aren’t helping, psychological and social interventions may reduce pain and the effect it’s having on your life.
  • Your brain is not a passive recipient of pain. You have the power to change the way you experience physical pain.

Information like this is especially important to keep in mind considering the opioid epidemic that’s sweeping the country. Ninety-one Americans die every day from an opioid overdose (including heroin and prescription opioids). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, non-opioid treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy, can be effective in relieving pain with a lot less risk.

Using therapy to improve chronic pain isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. The treatment plan needs to be individualized to fit the needs, values and perspectives of the patient. That said, here are some of the options available:

  • Relaxation training
  • Hypnosis
  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Cognitive restructuring
  • Addressing barriers to physical activity
  • Addressing emotional reactions to pain
  • Improving the patient’s understanding of how the mind and body are interconnected

And there are some social approaches to pain management as well. These include:

  • Re-engagement in social activities and support systems
  • Increased involvement in family life
  • Volunteering
  • Returning to work

Efforts such as these shift the focus away from the pain toward improving the quality of life. And when the quality of life improves, so does the pain experience.

If you’re looking for a psychologist who specializes in pain, you may want to contact an interventional pain clinic and ask for a recommendation. Another option when researching psychologists is to ask how much of their practice consists of patients who are experiencing pain.

Dr. Michael Sytniak is a clinical health psychologist who specializes in treating patients with chronic pain. In addition to having a private practice in Plymouth, Michigan, he’s the consulting psychologist with the Providence Pain Management Center in Southfield, Michigan. He’s been treating patients with chronic pain for more than 20 years.

Photo credit: centro guel

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