‘Catastrophizing’ Doesn’t Mean Pain Is All in Your Head

(Editor’s Note: Last month we published a story about pain “catastrophizing,” and how a new study showed that women who have negative or emotional responses to pain are more likely than men to be prescribed opioid medication. Several readers were offended by the study, as well as our story, feeling they belittled women and their ability to handle pain.

The two co-authors of the study, which was published in the journal Anesthesiology, kindly agreed to address some of these concerns and further explain their research.)

By Yasamin Sharifzadeh and Beth Darnall, PhD, Guest Columnists

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas about our recently published paper on opioid prescription and pain catastrophizing. We would like to address a few concerns brought up and to clarify some of the statements made in our publication.

First and foremost, our study analyzed pain catastrophizing, which has a different and more nuanced definition than terms such as complaining or worrying, that are commonly used to describe it.

Pain catastrophizing is measured via a 13 question survey, with specific subsets used to assess varying aspects of the way we emotionally approach pain. This term is not meant to downplay or discredit pain or its associated emotions. In fact, we use it to better understand the many manifestations of pain.

But for some people, the term “catastrophizing” is offensive. We hear those negative responses, but in clinic, when the term is described, many patients will say:  “I do that!  That is totally me.”  So while not everyone is offended by the term, some people are. It’s important to know that catastrophizing does not mean that pain is all in your head, or your fault, or that you did anything wrong.

Our nervous systems are hardwired to respond to pain with alarm. It is actually an acquired skill to learn to disengage one’s attention to pain and develop strategies that counteract this agitation in the nervous system. Otherwise, it can set us up to have greater distress and pain. This is true for everyone, but for some people the alarm in the nervous system rings louder. 

We sometimes use “negative mindset” as a way to describe difficulties in disengaging from attention to pain or focusing on worsening pain or worst-case scenarios. The science is clear on how our thoughts, attention, and emotions impact pain and pain treatment response.

Whatever the term used to describe this specific form of pain-related distress, it is highly predictive of response to various pain treatments. For this reason, it is important that we identify it and treat it. Not addressing these issues would be neglectful, given the degree to which one’s mindset can undermine treatment response and contribute to suffering.

Men and Women Catastrophize

We also wish to clarify some of the findings of the study. We found that men and women, in a general sample of chronic pain patients, had similar levels of pain catastrophizing. In other words, men and women do not significantly differ in their pain-related emotions. Also, consistent with previous peer-reviewed work, we found that women reported higher than average pain levels.

We took our robust analysis a few steps further to show that in women, pain-related emotions played a bigger role in the likelihood of having an opioid prescription than it did in men. Again, this is not saying that pain catastrophizing played no role in opioid prescribing for men -- just that it had a higher effect in women despite equal levels of pain catastrophizing between the sexes.

Overall, we view our study as a stepping-stone towards an improved understanding of both the physical and emotional manifestations of pain.

Pain catastrophizing is a unique term that describes just one of many ways that we can look at pain-related emotional distress, and it is not meant to discount pain in any way. Rather, it validates the importance of treating pain comprehensively in order to attain better results.

We hope that this study helps people with pain look at pain from many angles and work with their physician to find the solution that works best for them.

Yasamin Sharifzadeh is lead author of the study. She is a second year medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Beth Darnall, PhD, is senior author of the study.  She is a clinical associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of 3 books:    "Less Pain, Fewer Pills," "The Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit," and a forthcoming book entitled “Psychological Treatment for Chronic Pain.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.