Pain and Communication
The problem of pain
Communication has a large role in pain from the perspective of telling someone that you are suffering but also in the treatment of pain. At the BASRaT Symposium last week I outlined some of the key features that I will summarise here.
Before discussing communication I highlighted what is the one of the most significant and costly problems on the planet: pain. There are vast costs to society and individuals as the numbers of people suffering chronic pain are enormous. The British Pain Society recently called it the ‘silent epidemic’.
It is thought that 20% of the population suffer on-going pain, including 1 in 5 children. Whilst we can say that the former is a significant number necessitating action, the latter absolutely needs to change. We must understand why this is the case. What is it about modern living and culture that is creating a generation of pain and anxiety? There are some obvious candidates: pressure to achieve at all costs, a lack of self-esteem, narcissism encouraged by popular culture, and obsession with social media at the expense of developing connections and communication skills (including addiction to devices).
One of the main reasons for the scale of the pain problem is the misunderstanding of pain through society. The biomedical model still predominates when there is the search for a structure or pathology to explain the pain and extent of the pain. The preferable biopsychosocial model takes into consideration the important psychological and social dimensions, but often the ‘bio’ receives most attention. Modern understanding of pain would suggest that actually, a better framing would be a sociopsychobiological model because whilst understanding the pathophysiology and molecular aspects of pain is important for scientists and clinicians, the person in pain just needs to know what to do when they are in pain. They need a process to follow with an understanding as to why this is important. Neuroscience education has a place in the treatment of pain, but not a primary one.
Pain is a subjective experience emerging in the person, influenced by a range of social, cultural, contextual and environmental factors, past experiences and beliefs, in the face of a perceived threat. Pain is about protection and survival.
Pain & communication
With the size of the problem in mind alongside the understanding that pain is poorly related to injury and tissue health or pathology, we looked at some important aspects of communication.
One of the communication streams that is often forgotten is the inner dialogue. This is the story that you tell yourself about you and life; that little voice that is so familiar and if not trained can be so disruptive. This is the inner dialogue that can cause such suffering when we berate ourselves for not being good enough. This is relevant for the person with chronic pain as self-criticism is a common feature when in fact kindness and self-compassion is a key driver in getting better. Equally, the clinician’s inner dialogue will affect his or her approach and decision making. Think of a scenario when you are tired, you were late for work, you stubbed your toe on the bed and then you are faced with your first patient who has not improved. You need clarity of thought to approach this situation, not a mind cluttered with annoyance and frustration.
What are you telling yourself? What are you convincing yourself? How are you choosing to think?
How we communicate pain to the person has an impact on their understanding, which is paramount in validating their story to date, and in helping them engage with the programme. Firstly we must listen deeply so that we can know the person as much as the condition ~ the two are not separate. Listening deeply is a skill allied with active listening when you are fully present, in contact via body position, your eyes and expressions (verbal and non-verbal), and allowing them the space and time to tell their story. This narrative holds many clues so our full attention is required, jotting down key points and phrases. In sum, there are different communication dynamics co-existing: the inner dialogue of the person, that os the clinician and the (outer) communication between the two.
Compassion and empathy
Cultivating compassion and empathy as a clinician is an extremely worthwhile exercise. Those who have chosen the caring professions have already demonstrated these characteristics by the very nature of the choice ~ we care and want to help others to live their lives. It is interesting and reflective to consider the question: why do I care?
Not only is this important for the clinician, but also for the patient to learn such skills, especially if they are hard on themselves. It is very easy to pick up on this when they speak to you. The problem with being a self-critic without control is that it is very threatening and hence is provoking the self-protect systems that exist to make sure we survive. These systems have a significant role in pain and hence we are aiming to do the very opposite: active the care-giving systems and effect parasympathetic actions. In a sense our job is to help the person realise that they are safe, how they can safely build up their meaningful activities and adapt in a way that means they are living meaningfully.
What are compassion and empathy?
- Empathy ~ the capacity to share the feelings of others
- Compassion ~ feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other…with a strong motivation to improve the other’s wellbeing (Singer & Klimecki)
These will be familiar to clinicians and therapists, but what may not be so familiar is the fact that we can train and practice simple skills to improve our capacity.
It will not be a surprise to many that our brains change when we practice and learn, and this is no different for compassion. Neuroscientists have been looking at these mechanisms for some years now, gathering data on these brain changes and how they manifest in the person. Aside from the science, developing a compassionate society has obvious benefits for all:
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive ~ Dalai Lama
These are skills that should be practiced from an early age with purpose, in homes, schools and workplaces. And just to be clear, compassion is not characterised by weakness or femininity as can be said; not at all. Compassion takes courage and is for all.
There are a range of practices that clinicians and therapists can use for both themselves and their patients. Remember that there is an interaction between the care-giver and receiver, both benefitting from a kind action on a chemical level. Fostering and nurturing every opportunity means that we set the scene: the welcome, the greeting, the opening question or comment, the engagement, the demonstration of care, the calm environment, and much more. Being aware of the present moment and crafting each unique session is a skill to be fostered.
It is beyond the scope to describe the following in detail, but as an indicator, these practices are easily started, often a challenge to continue, but immensely worthwhile for the individual and society:
- lovingkindness meditation
- the practice of gratitude
- cultivating an ability to control the wandering mind
- purposefully generating positive emotions
It is worth remembering that as a clinician, you are the treatment as much as any approach you apply. There is no separation. Developing your capacities hence will have a significant impact on your clients and patients as you increasingly set the scene and communicate in such a way that the person feels trust towards you, a sense of being cared for and a belief that they can get better.
Here is a great video from one of the foremost researchers in the field of compassion, Richard Davidson