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What Is a Pain Psychologist?

Pain Psychology is a specialty discipline few people know about

Africa Studio - Adobe Stock
Source: Africa Studio - Adobe Stock

Chronic pain comes with unique challenges that span the medical realm and virtually every area of one’s life. Pain can impact one’s ability to engage in activities and relationships with others. One’s sense of self and self-worth may be impacted by pain. Exercise, sleep, work capacity and finances may suffer. These are a few examples of the challenges that may come with chronic pain, and all of them will be influenced by other psychological factors, such as anxiety or depression. Anxiety and depression can worsen with chronic pain. Things that would normally bring a person joy or emotional stability (e.g., time with friends, exercise) may not be possible anymore, or only in very limited doses. People may withdraw from activities and become socially isolated, further contributing to poor mood, poor sleep and deconditioning.

People are often surprised to hear that pain psychology is a psychological specialty. Pain psychologists typically have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and completed an APA-accredited post-doctoral fellowship that specializes in chronic pain. Pain psychologists may have a private practice. More commonly, a pain psychologist works as part of a multidisciplinary pain treatment team within an academic pain clinic, private pain clinic, in a hospital rehabilitation setting, or in an outpatient chronic pain functional restoration program.

You may think of pain as being something negative (noxious) that you feel in your body. However, the International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as being both a negative sensory and an emotional experience. Psychology is built into the very definition of pain. How you think and feel impacts pain processing at the neural level, and this establishes one of the foundations for the mind-body connection. Learning techniques to better regulate sensory experience begins with learning how to best regulate your thoughts and emotions. This is one important part of pain psychology.

Another important part of pain psychology involves looking at how our thoughts and emotions influence our daily choices and therefore our pain.

As an example of this, “Susan” was a woman I worked with who had chronic head and neck pain. As her pain worsened she was less able to parent her children, and this caused her extreme guilt and began to rattle her sense of identity, which was very much linked to her role as a good mom who was engaged in her children’s lives. She coped with her guilt by pushing herself hard each day in an effort to maintain her old role. Her guilt-driven ‘pushing’ was serving to flare her pain regularly, leading to greater need for medication, and more ‘down days’ due to uncontrolled pain. I worked closely with Susan to help her develop and apply skills that decreased her emotional distress and physiological hyperarousal—two factors that feed pain. She learned how to identify when her mind was focusing on factors that contributed to her feeling down and anxious. She cultivated self-regulatory skills that helped her manage the challenges of life with chronic pain. And importantly, she learned how to set limits with herself and others to best manage her pain. Setting limits with herself and others was a formidable challenge because it necessarily involved altering relationship patterns and roles that had been in place for years. Addressing these interpersonal factors was both challenging and rewarding. For Susan, working in the therapeutic setting helped her identify areas of her life that needed to change, set the goals that were meaningful to her, and receive the support she needed to begin making key life changes that ultimately supported her becoming more functional, and living the life she desired.


Darnall BD. Psychological Treatment for Patients with Chronic Pain ©2018 American Psychological Association Press: Washington, D.C. (193 pages) ISBN-13: 978-1433829420