The Benefits of Psychological Treatment for Pain
Patients often wonder why they should consider seeing a psychologist for their pain. Isn’t pain happening in their body and not their mind? This is especially puzzling for some patients after they’ve had surgery. Isn’t there a purely biological reason for their pain after surgery? It can’t be just in their head!
We now know that the experience of pain is generated in the brain and it depends on a person’s unique circumstances. Just because patients might be asked to consider seeing a psychologist does not mean we think the pain is “all in their head” or that they are imagining it or making it up. Post-surgical pain is real.
Pain is a signal of damage or danger. It tells us something is wrong in the body. Although the pain signal is sent from the body, it’s the brain that processes the pain signal.
The brain also integrates the pain signals from the body with other aspects of the person’s experience, such as their past history of danger or threat related to pain, their expectations about pain, their worries and anxieties, and their interpretation of what pain means in their daily lives. All of these psychological factors can amplify the pain signal that’s coming from the body so that we feel the pain more intensely.
A trained pain psychologist can help patients to examine their expectations, thoughts, and feelings related to pain and guide them in learning coping strategies. These aspects of pain are ones that patients can learn to actively manage in order to gain a better understanding and a greater sense of control over their pain.
The video below provides a helpful summary of brain's role the experience of pain:
How Can a Psychologist Help with Pain After Surgery?
Damage to the body does not alone determine whether we feel pain and how strong or intense it is. The pain we feel is caused by damage to the body plus our thoughts and feelings about the pain. Even post-surgical pain is determined by more than just the surgery.
The overall experience of pain comes not only from the bodily sensation of pain (e.g., its duration, frequency, and intensity) but also the interpretation of these sensations (e.g., its meaning) based on a person’s unique past and present life experiences.
Addressing the psychological aspects of pain can change how pain is experienced.
The good news is that patients can take an active role after surgery in dealing with their pain. Patients need not feel helpless in waiting for their condition to improve. Psychologists have techniques and tools they can teach patients to use to help them reduce the concern and worry as well as the pain itself.
Having surgery can affect a patient’s quality of life in general due to worries about their illness, concern over the surgery outcome, and doubts about their future health. A positive and proactive outlook on life after surgery can have a positive impact on the healing process and the experience of pain.
A trained pain psychologist can help patients during their recovery to take control over their pain, and to learn to move pain into the background and improve their present and future quality of life. So if you’re asked whether you want to see a psychologist for your postsurgical pain, why not consider it!
We now understand that the experience of pain is influenced by various biological, psychological, behavioural, and social factors. Researchers and healthcare practitioners refer to this as the Biopsychosocial Model of Pain.
In the treatment of chronic pain it is beneficial to focus on the different components of the pain experience using a holistic, integrated approach. The Transitional Pain Service team includes expert psychologists who treat patients by addressing the unique circumstances of their chronic pain experience in the broader context of their lives.
The Biopsychosocial Model of Pain
Pain Therapies used by our Psychologists
Psychologists at the TPS practice therapeutic interventions that are tailored to postsurgical patients and address pain education, pain coping, pain interference, and mood and anxiety concerns.
The therapeutic interventions are based on research evidence showing effectiveness in chronic pain patients, including studies conducted at the TPS clinic. Learn more about the different types of therapies below:
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)
ACT is an effective behavioural intervention for chronic pain that is strongly supported by research. ACT helps to reduce pain-related distress and improve functioning in people living with chronic pain.
The goal of the intervention is to help patients develop skills to make pain more manageable through committed engagement in valued life activities and mindful acceptance of the difficulties of experiencing pain.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)
DBT is a type of cognitive-behavioural therapy that helps patients manage difficult feelings. It emphasizes learning new skills to increase tolerance for distress, acceptance of circumstances, and non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.
Through DBT, patients learn to identify and express feelings, and to analyze their reactions to their feelings. These skills can help chronic pain patients reduce avoidance of experiences that may provoke pain and thus lessen pain-related disability.
Mindfulness is a practice of paying attention to the present moment with curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Mindfulness-based therapies help patients to learn to observe their inner sensations and the surrounding environment without judgment so they can step back and reframe their experience of chronic pain.
Mindfulness-based interventions have strong research support and can help patients gain a sense of control of their pain, lower anxiety and depression, and improve their quality of life.
Hypnosis is a mental state involving heightened attention and reduced external awareness, alongside relaxation and greater openness to suggestions. Hypnosis used in therapy can be an effective approach to chronic pain management for some patients, helping to reduce pain intensity and improving the quality of life.
A therapist guides a patient towards a calm and relaxed state of hypnosis with the help of verbal repetition and mental imagery. The therapist then offers suggestions to help the patient cope with undesired experiences and behaviours. Patients can also learn self-hypnosis skills to use as a coping strategy for pain management.