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What Is the Role of Psychology in Pain Management?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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The role of psychology in pain management can be important, as a mind-body connection often influences experiences of pain. People who receive psychotherapy as part of a pain management plan can experience better outcomes in some cases. Specialists who focus on pain may integrate some psychology in pain management, or could recommend that patients consider seeing a mental health professional as part of the treatment.

Chronic pain in particular can cause a variety of psychological issues, although acute pain can also be a problem. Patients may be stressed, depressed, and frustrated. If they haven’t received adequate pain management, they may develop resentment and anger which can make it hard to work with care providers. They may also develop erroneous ideas as a result of poor communication with their specialists; for example, a patient might not clearly understand the recommendations for pain management made by a doctor.

Doctors aware of the role of psychology in pain management can check in with their patients during regular appointments to gauge their mental status. If a patient reports depression or frustration, the care provider can discuss it and determine if any measures could help address the situation. Active listening and clear communication on the part of the provider can help the patient feel more confident and may encourage people to take an active role in their health care. If necessary, the provider might offer a referral to help the patient get specific assistance.

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Practitioners who work with pain patients may help them develop coping skills to manage pain more effectively and address underlying psychological problems. Techniques like breathing exercises, guided imagery, and biofeedback can integrate psychology in pain management to provide more complete care to a patient. For example, a patient with phantom limb pain might work with a practitioner and a mirror box to simulate movement of the missing limb and retrain the circuits in the brain that keep sending pain signals. This uses psychology and an awareness of how the brain works to address the pain.

Patients are sometimes confused or alienated by referrals to a mental health professional in the context of pain management, because they may believe their providers are implying that the pain is purely psychological in nature. Psychology in pain management is not meant to replace other options, but to supplement existing treatment and help patients manage the emotional distress that may accompany chronic, resistant pain. If a patient is unsure about why mental health services are being recommended, the care provider should be able to provide more specific advice and information. It is also advisable to consider meeting with several counselors to find one who is a good fit.

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