How to get the most out of medical treatment for pain

Psychological approaches can help boost your pain treatment response

Posted Sep 24, 2014

Many people think about pain psychology as being a way to help them cope with pain. While true, the important part of the equation is often overlooked: that psychological factors can predict how well pain treatments actually work. Thoughts and emotions are so powerful that they influence pain intensity, how well medical treatments work, including medications, surgery, and physical rehabilitation.

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Pain has a medical basis, and it is influenced by a multitude of factors such as how much our mind focuses on pain and our feelings of helplessness about it. It’s important to equip individuals with skills that help shift their mind’s focus toward self-soothing, and so they can engage in ways to help themselves. These skills will not eliminate the medical basis of pain or the pain itself, but it give people a way to steer mind and body toward self-soothing relief. This turns out to be a critical part of the formula. If the mind remains focused on pain and feeling of helpless or ‘worst-case scenario’ for current or future pain, it amplifies pain and suffering and is linked to poorer results for medical treatments and greater need for medications and interventions.

Brain imaging (fMRI) studies have shown that attention to pain, anticipation of pain, and negative emotions related to pain—all amplify pain at the neural level and engage the same areas of the brain associated with pain processing.

Nobody chooses to have chronic pain. Human neurobiology is hardwired to focus on pain and to seek relief. Even so, know that there are things you can do to steer mind and body adaptively, to help address pain-specific worry and focus. A pain psychologist will help you learn tools that dampen pain processing in your central nervous system, thereby supporting you and your response to a wide variety of medical and physical treatments for pain. In this way, pain psychology (or behavioral medicine for pain) is not just about coping with pain: it’s about shaping mind and toward relief. 

(Note: see January 2020 post on Addressing the Needs of A Nation in Pain for new developments on rapid access to behavioral medicine treatment for pain).


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