Pain or Disability?

This is a repost (with permission) from the Healthskills blog as part of Bronnie Thompson' appearance at Le Pub Home Brew. You can find the original post here.

One of the fundamental distinctions we need to make when working with people who experience pain is to understand the difference between experiencing pain – and the behaviour or actions or responses we make to this experience. This is crucial because we can never know “what it is like” to experience pain – and all we have to rely on as external observers is what we see the person doing. Differentiating between the various dimensions associated with our experience of pain makes it far easier to address each part in the distinct ways needed. Let me explain. We know the current definition of pain – an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in such terms (IASP, 1979). One of the key points of this definition was to remove the need for nociception as a requirement for pain to be present. So when we unpack what we understand about pain, the first step is to recognise that it’s an experience. Something we can never share with another person – just like we can’t share joy, the taste of a great craft beer, or what a lover’s touch is like. We therefore have an inexact relationship between two concepts: nociception, or the biological mechanisms at play until the point at which we are conscious of pain; and pain, or the experience of what it is like to have an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in such terms.

How do we know when someone is experiencing pain?

But wait, there’s more. Given that this experience is a subjective, internal and personal experience – how do we know when someone is experiencing pain? When I ask students, their answer is “oh you can see grimacing, wincing, or they tell you” – and it’s true! But let’s notice something: they’re all behaviours.Things people do, either involuntarily or voluntarily, to signal that they’re sore. Behaviours or actions are not a direct indication of “what it is like” to experience pain. Like nociception and pain, there is an inexact relationship between what someone does when they’re experiencing pain – and their resultant behaviour. So we now have three somewhat overlapping concepts: nociception (biology), pain (experience), and behaviours (actions). They overlap because there is no direct 1:1 relationship between these concepts – although in some cases it may seem like there is. What else influences our pain experience? If you’ve been paying attention to my blog these last few weeks, you’ll know that thoughts or beliefs and emotions also influence both our experience of pain and our behaviour. For example, if we know that the pain we’re experiencing is for good (such as post-surgical pain after hip replacement), we tend to be more forgiving, or at least more willing to experience it than if someone attacked us with a scalpel down some back alley! We have plenty of evidence that simply knowing the supposed cause, and something about the biology of pain, can help people to feel a little differently about it (emotions), and to move differently (behaviour) (Moseley & Butler, 2015; Tegner, Frederiksen, Esbensen & Juhl, in press), while emotions in both experimental and clinical studies have been shown to strongly affect pain intensity – and subsequent behavioural responses (Orenius, Raij, Nuortimo, Naatanen, Lipsanen, & Karlsson, 2017). Once again, the relationships are not exact – which is almost always the case when we’re studying complex systems! Because thoughts, beliefs and emotions have both impacts on nociceptive processes and on pain experience and behaviours, I’ve depicted them as overlapping (if there was a way to show this in 3-D believe me, I would!). But wait, there’s more! We know context makes an enormous difference to a person’s experience of pain AND the behaviours they take in response to their pain. While contextual factors don’t directly influence nociception, these factors do influence thoughts and beliefs, emotions, and behaviour. For example, we know that in adolescents with pain, parental responses influence the amount of treatment seeking (Stone, Bruehl, Smith, Garber & Walker, 2018); and that spouses or partners of people living with pain can affect both pain intensity and behaviour because of the way they interact (Burns, Post, Smith, Porter, Buvanendran, Fras & Keefe, 2018). We also know that in different communities, responses to pain can differ: people who pursue body suspension (being pierced and suspended by hooks) are supported by those around them to “hang in there” (no pun intended!). Factors such as legislation make a difference to pursuing treatment, while treatment itself can perpetuate disability and may even increase attention to pain. Why bother explaining all this? The implications of understanding these associations are quite profound. Firstly, nociception is a small but important contributor to our pain experience. Most pain starts with a nociceptive stimulus, even if it ultimately ends up less influential than cortical ‘interpretive’ processes. Secondly, the experience we have of pain is something we can’t share – and thirdly the only way we can begin to infer that another person has pain is via their behaviours, or what they do. This means pain measures like the visual analogue scale, FACES scale, numeric rating scale are not direct measures but are used by people to give a message about their pain. All behaviour is influenced by both our thoughts/beliefs and emotions and contextual factors including who is nearby, past responses they’ve made to our messages, what’s normal or expected in various contexts, and the purpose we believe our behaviour will serve. And of course, many of the influences and behaviours we do are not things we’re consciously aware of because we’ve been doing them since we were born. So when I think about what we might do to help someone with their pain, I firstly acknowledge that I can’t directly influence someone’s own experience. I’m working to influence what they do about their pain, their relationship to their pain, their beliefs and understanding, their emotions and how they communicate this to other people around them. And to me, the first step is being ready to hear what people believe about their pain. Only after I’ve successfully conveyed this to the person can I ever begin to come alongside them to help them change what they do. Burns, J. W., Post, K. M., Smith, D. A., Porter, L. S., Buvanendran, A., Fras, A. M., & Keefe, F. J. (2018). Spouse criticism and hostility during marital interaction: effects on pain intensity and behaviors among individuals with chronic low back pain. Pain, 159(1), 25-32. Moseley, G. L., & Butler, D. S. (2015). Fifteen years of explaining pain: The past, present, and future. J Pain, 16(9), 807-813. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2015.05.005 Orenius, T. I., Raij, T. T., Nuortimo, A., Näätänen, P., Lipsanen, J., & Karlsson, H. (2017). The interaction of emotion and pain in the insula and secondary somatosensory cortex. Neuroscience, 349, 185-194. Porreca, F., & Navratilova, E. (2017). Reward, motivation, and emotion of pain and its relief. Pain, 158, S43-S49. Stone, A. L., Bruehl, S., Smith, C. A., Garber, J., & Walker, L. S. (2018). Social learning pathways in the relation between parental chronic pain and daily pain severity and functional impairment in adolescents with functional abdominal pain. Pain, 159(2), 298-305. Tegner, H., Frederiksen, P., Esbensen, B. A., & Juhl, C. (2018). Neurophysiological pain-education for patients with chronic low back pain-a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Clinical Journal of Pain.