Can you experience the same pain differently?

Aug 29, 2016

A major tenet of chronic pain rehabilitation is that the way you experience pain is not the only possible way to experience pain. In other words, the experience of pain differs across individuals and can even differ in the same individual across time. As such, it's possible to have a different experience of pain than the experience that you have today, even if your pain remains on a chronic course.

This point isn’t necessarily controversial. Patients commonly make a similar point themselves. For instance, patients sometimes express that pain is a subjective experience that only they can feel.

The rub, though, lies in the consequences we draw from such a point. We can draw different consequences.

Patients often make the point about the subjective nature of pain as a means to defend against stigma. It's a way to say that others shouldn’t judge if their experience of pain differs from the patient’s experience of pain. While it’s a good point that no one should ever stigmatize patients for how they experience pain, we might draw an altogether different inference from the point that pain is a subjective experience. This inference has nothing to do with the issue of stigma and it is often drawn by healthcare providers, particularly pain psychologists and others who work in chronic pain rehabilitation. This additional inference is that you can come to experience pain differently.

In other words, the subjective nature of pain is such that different people can have different experiences of pain and what this shows is that it is possible to experience pain differently than how you experience it today. You can learn, in other words, how to have pain in other ways. It’s a hopeful message. It’s the foundation for what pain psychologists do everyday – help people come to experience their pain differently, in ways that are better than how they presently experience it.

Coping with pain as changing how you experience pain

In effect, what’s happening is that, with the help of pain psychology and chronic pain rehabilitation, people come to cope better with pain. They literally experience their pain in new and different ways. They experience pain in ways that are better than they had experienced it previously.

They know, for instance, that their pain isn’t a sign of a fragile injury, which is about to get worse at any point in time. Subsequently, they are not alarmed by pain and do not understand it as some thing for which they must stay home and rest. Instead, they tend to see pain as akin to white noise, something that is there, but remains in the background of their attention. They remain grounded and focused on their activities, which they continue to do. They go to work and go to their children’s activities and go to the neighborhood potlucks. They do all these things with pain.

Now, that’s what coping really well with pain looks like.

When people cope well with pain, they literally experience it differently than someone who isn’t coping well – the individual, for instance, who is alarmed by pain, sees it as a function of a deteriorating disease that is inevitably going to get worse, and so subsequently believes the best course of action is to avoid the activities of daily life and instead stay home and rest, out of concern for not making their condition worse.

What would it be like to cope so well with pain that you literally experience it in the manner I previously described above – as something that remains present, but something that nonetheless doesn’t deserve a lot of day-to-day attention and emotional energy and so remains in the background of your daily activities like white noise?

There are countless lessons to learn that can be helpful when learning how to do it. The pain psychologists of a chronic pain rehabilitation clinic or program can help you to learn them. We have discussed a number of them in the posts of this blog (see, for example, posts on catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, mind-reading, perfectionism, among others).

In our next post, we’ll review yet another important cognitive distortion that adversely affects how people experience pain. It occurs when people understand pain as something that always signals harm. It can happen, for instance, when people with back or neck pain understand their pain as solely the result of a fragile, degenerative condition of the spine. In large measure, this cognitive distortion is a consequence of how certain parts of the healthcare system understand back and neck pain as the symptom of degenerative disc disease. It’s therefore a complicated issue as it plays out in both patients and some healthcare providers.

It’s also, though, an important issue. Every rehabilitation provider tends to encourage patients to exercise, move and get back into life, within some reasonable limits. However, people don’t tend to do these things when they see their pain as signaling harm. Instead, what people tend to do when understanding their pain as indicative of a fragile injury is to become mildly alarmed, stay home and rest.

It’s therefore important to learn when pain is a sign of injury (for which you should become alarmed, stop what you are doing and seek care) and when pain is not a sign of injury (for which you try to stay grounded, redirect your attention elsewhere and remain engaged in the activities of your life). In other words, sometimes pain has a psychobiological function of signaling injury or illness and sometimes pain continues even though it has lost this function. It’s important to know the difference. In the former case, you take heed. In the latter case, you try to tune it out as white noise.

Will discuss more in the next post!

Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD

Date of last modification: 8-29-2016

About the author: Dr. McAllister is the executive director and founder of the Institute for Chronic Pain (ICP). The ICP is an educational and public policy think tank. Our mission is to lead the field in making pain management more empirically supported. Additionally, the ICP provides scientifically accurate information on chronic pain that is approachable to patients and their families. Dr. McAllister is also the clinical director of pain services for Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (CKRI), part of Allina Health, in Minneapolis, MN. Among other services, CKRI provides chronic pain rehabilitation services on a residential and outpatient basis.

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