A New Psychological Treatment for Chronic Pain

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has dominated the field of psychological treatment for chronic pain for the last three decades. Studies have shown that it is effective, yet some researchers say CBT also has its limits and could be improved upon.

As CBT treatment approaches continue to evolve, what is noteworthy is a departure from the logic of everyday thinking. “Suffering” is not seen as pathology, but rather as inherent in the human condition. We don’t want it and we don’t like it, but suffering is inescapable.

Following this principle, the utility of “normal thinking, analyzing, and problem-solving” is called into question. Our brains have evolved into powerful problem-solvers that serve very well with things are external to us. For example:

Problem: your car malfunctions and no longer starts. If you have the knowledge and skills, you find the problem and repair the car. Problem solved. If you do not have the skills, you find someone who does and repairs it for you. Problem solved.

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But chronic pain is an internal problem that cannot be easily solved. No matter the effort from our powerful problem-solving brains, doctors and patients often cannot work it out. For a sufferer to spend a lifetime attempting to analyze and logically think their way to being pain-free can be a lifetime spent in futility.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Newer psychological approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are guided by the premise that we cannot change the pain we’re left with, so let’s change our response to that pain. ACT was outlined in a 2014 article in the journal American Psychologist.

ACT differs notably from traditional CBT in method. Rather than challenging and changing thoughts, ACT seeks to reduce their influence over our behaviour. This core treatment process is called “psychological flexibility,” which is the ability to contact the present moment fully and consciously, based on what the situation affords.

In other words, we act on our long-term values rather than short term impulses, thoughts and feelings. I have a personal example of this:

“Knowing that I love to dine out and see live theatre, my partner reserved an evening of these as a surprise birthday present for me. After the reservations were made, I endured a serious back injury, which makes sitting for long periods particularly painful. He offered to cancel immediately, but I stopped him.

My thoughts told me, ‘Don’t go! You’ll be in more pain. Stay home and protect yourself!’

I applied a few of the many skills I have learned through ACT and was able to hold these thoughts lightly, and essentially not buy into them. I committed to continue with the dinner and theatre plans, and accept the pain in the service of my value of nurturing a social life. Result: my pain was not in charge -- I was.”

Why would one choose these strategies? It’s because thoughts and emotions tend to be unreliable indicators of long-term value. They ebb and flow constantly and we have little control over them. If we act based solely on them, we can lose out on experiences that bring true meaning and vitality to our lives.

In my case, I could have held onto my thoughts tightly and isolated myself at home with my pain, but instead I chose not to buy into those thoughts, to be willing to have the pain (acceptance), and commit to an experience which brought richness to my life. I knew my evening out would not reduce or eliminate my pain. I chose to do something of value to me -- the pain came along for the ride.

The catch is that unhelpful thoughts and emotions can dominate without a person even being aware of them. This results in “psychological inflexibility,” which leads to rigid, ineffective behaviour. If I let my thoughts run the show, the result would have been that I isolated myself at home with my pain and likely more suffering. Other positive behaviours and experiences would have been essentially blocked from me. No thank you.

Evidence to support ACT for chronic pain continues to grow, and its efficacy is about the same as CBT at this point. This is no small feat, considering CBT has been the gold standard for decades.

There are at least six randomized controlled trials which support the use of ACT for chronic pain. Most show ACT increases the acceptance of pain, along with improvements in anxiety, depression, and reductions in disability. This psychological flexibility significantly improves life satisfaction, disability, emotional distress and fear of movement.

It will be interesting to see future studies as ACT continues to advance and helps us find new and different ways “to act successfully in the world.”

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for over 30 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

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.