Why See a Psychologist for Pain? (Part 2)

Jul 29, 2013

In the last post, we addressed the question, “Why see a psychologist for pain?” The answer is that psychologists are the experts in teaching patients how to self-manage and cope with chronic pain. Patients who see psychologists for chronic pain can learn to self-manage and cope with pain so well that they can largely come to live a normal life despite having chronic pain.  

Another way to respond to the question of “Why see a psychologist for pain?” is to look at the role of the nervous system in chronic pain and how psychologists are experts in the treatment of health problems related to the nervous system. Let’s attempt to unpack this statement.

Nervous system & chronic pain

People commonly think of chronic pain as if it is a long-lasting symptom of an injury or illness that has failed to heal. This viewpoint is mistaken. Take, for example, the notion of degenerative disc disease. It is common to think that degenerative changes of the spine are the cause of chronic back pain. However, we know that degenerative changes of the spine are only minimally correlated with pain, which means that most of what makes up the experience of pain cannot be attributed to degenerative changes of the spine (Endean, Palmer, & Coggon, 2011). Such changes of the spine are a minor ingredient, if you will, in the pie that’s chronic pain.

A more accurate understanding of chronic pain is that it is a disorder of the nervous system called central sensitization. An orthopedic injury, for example, might have initially caused a case of back pain, but now, after many months or years, the whole nervous system is involved, including the brain and spinal cord. Changes to the whole nervous system have now made the nerves at the original site of the injury highly sensitive and reactive. They are stuck, as it were, in a “hair trigger” mode that makes any little movement painful.

In the notion of central sensitization, we also see one of the central tenets of chronic pain rehabilitation: that when it comes to chronic pain, what initially caused the pain is not now the only thing that maintains pain on a chronic course. The notion captures the complexity of causal factors in chronic pain, as opposed to acute pain, which may have one cause – an injury or illness. Biological, psychological, and environmental factors are known to influence the development of central sensitization (please see the Institute’s content page on central sensitization for more details). The notion of central sensitization also explains other psychosocial aspects of chronic pain – chronic fatigue, insomnia, limited cognitive deficits such as poor concentration and short-term memory, gastrointestinal upset, anxiety, and depression (Meeus & Nijs, 2007; Wieseler-Frank, Maier, & Watkins, 2005; Yunus, 2007)

For many years, psychologists have successfully treated patients with health conditions related to the nervous system: depression, the various anxiety disorders, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, as well as chronic pain.

Psychological therapies for chronic pain

The Society for Clinical Psychology, which is a division of the American Psychological Association, developed task forces to compile a list of treatments that have been determined to be effective for a variety of disorders. They defined “effectiveness” as having multiple clinical trials from different researchers showing the effectiveness of a specific treatment. Not surprisingly, they have identified as effective multiple psychological treatments for mental health disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and general anxiety. However, they have also identified as effective multiple psychological therapies for health conditions. There is strong empirical support for cognitive behavioral treatments for chronic low back pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, headache, and chronic pain syndromes in general. They have also identified effective psychological therapies for primary insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome. You can find information on these treatments here and here.

These therapies are effective likely because of their impact on the nervous system. Just as cognitive behavioral therapies reduce the reactivity of the nervous system in persons with post-traumatic stress disorder or panic disorder, in terms of their heightened startle response or susceptibility to panic, respectively, cognitive behavioral therapies for chronic pain disorders are likely to reduce the reactivity of the nervous system. By reducing the reactivity of the nervous system, patients come to have less pain and increased abilities to cope with the pain that remains.


Endean, A., Palmer, K. T., & Coggon, D. (2011). Potential of MRI findings to refine case definition for mechanical low back pain in epidemiological studies: A systematic review. Spine, 36, 160-169.

Meeus M., & Nijs, J. (2007). Central sensitization: A biopsychosocial explanation for chronic widespread pain in patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Clinical Journal of Rheumatology, 26, 465-473.

Wieseler-Frank, J., Maier, S. F., & Watkins, L. R. (2005). Immune-to-brain communication dynamically modulates pain: Physiological and pathological consequences. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity, 19, 104-111.

Yunus, M. B. (2007). The role of central sensitization in symptoms beyond muscle pain, and the evaluation of a patient with widespread pain. Best Practice Research in Clinical Rheumatology, 21, 481-497.

Date of last modification: 7-29-2013

Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD

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