Pills, injections & surgery don’t teach you how to live ~ pain is a public health and social issue
In chronic pain, everything changes. The way you think, feel, move and body sense are all impacted by this on-going state of protection that keeps you in a defensive mode. Even the world looks different as perceptions of the environment are distorted (Ref). The changes that we live and experience have biological underpinnings that have and continue to be studied. Clarifying what is happening at this level aims to give rise to new clinical approaches, both pharmacological and non-pharamcological.
This short article is by no means anti-medicine or anti-surgery because these methods have their place. In that place they must remain, viewed as an option within an overall plan or programme that delivers the outcome of overcoming pain. My point is simply that understanding pain means that we realise that explanations relying upon tissue structure or pathology do not hold up. Pain is not a structure and pain cannot be seen on any scan or x-ray. Pain is a lived experience emerging in a person, which is a culmination of multilevel neuroimmune processing and consequent prediction of the existence of a possible threat. Pain exists within our perception of the current moment that is informed by context and past experience (priors): what we are thinking, what we are doing, who we are with, where we are.
Only I can experience my pain under these circumstances, with some ‘components’ being conscious and many being subconscious. For example, I know that I am anticipating pain in the form of a thought: ‘I expect my back to hurt when I put on those shoes’. Yet I do not know and cannot ‘feel’ the activity of my brain, instead living the biological processing as a conscious experience of what it is like to exist in this moment. Here if course we are contemplating consciousness and what it is like to be me, and we do not know how biology becomes this experience.
Pain emerging in the person makes it as complex as the person; and we are complex! Equally, pain relief or achieving a pain free state is as complex. Neither are permanent states as we are continually changing as our body systems and models of the world update. Our ability to shape our body systems with experience creates such opportunity and with that hope. But it is the individual who shapes their systems by making choices based on understanding. This is why understanding pain is so important as a starter. By this I don’t mean knowing all the chemicals and receptors, instead a working knowledge of pain that can be used practically at any given moment so that the person knows what to think and do. In essence, they learn to coach themselves, which is the basis of my Pain Coach Programme.
There are many influences upon the pain experience itself as well as the likelihood that we will feel pain. Unsurprisingly these include stress, anxiety, thoughts, emotional state, environment, other people, fear, context, memory, tiredness and past experience. The person can understand these influences and develop practices that lessen and ease their impact, learning new habits that are pointed towards health and happiness. This is a significant part of the programme of getting and living well. Pills, injections and surgery do not provide such a learning opportunity. Indeed there maybe relief in the short term and there is a potential role here, yet we are interested in long term change in a desired direction.
Suffering chronic pain has many effects upon the person. Certainly their biology has adapted and changed meaning that they can be in a protect or vigilant state more often, and therefore more reactive with emotions and behaviours. Body sense often changes resulting in altered movement patterns, which in turn cause issues navigating the world as well as providing sensory information that can be continually interpreted as evidence of a threat. Recall that pain is in the face of a perceived threat: more threat = more likelihood of pain. Learning the skills of wellbeing together with specific training sculpts biology towards that underpinning lived experiences of health and wellbeing. Again, pills, injections and surgery do not provide such an opportunity.
Overcoming pain to live a meaningful life requires understanding, effort, practice, resilience, motivation and the right attitude. Everyone has the ability to use their strengths and values to motivate actions (thoughts and acts — remember that a thought is an action) that steer change in a positive direction. It is realising that we can choose. We can choose the attitude we take towards a challenge, and the challenge of chronic pain can be one of the greatest faced by an individual.
Rightly so, an argument has been put forward that pain should be considered an issue of public health. Pain is certainly a societal problem, and in looking at it in this way, we are more like to be able to address the issue that costs us an extraordinary amount of money each year. Financial cost is one thing, but the amount of suffering across the globe and in particular in poorer regions, is another. We are compelled to think differently and we can to do this with the knowledge that we have about pain emerging from science, social and philosophical fields. This is a desperate situation needing collaborations between countries and organisations. Fundamentally, the picture of the modern pain epidemic can be changed, beginning with changing society’s thinking about pain. This involves practical and engaged education projects.
Pain education has been trumpeted and righty so. However, there has been a focus on the neuroscience of pain, especially the role of the brain to the point that the brain is described as somehow being separate from the person. Very contemporary philosophical thinking together with neuroscience has nudged us towards the whole person and viewing pain as a lived experience emerging in the person. This allows us to consider a range of ways to educate the person about how they can change their pain, overcome their pain and live a meaningful life. Of course this is always work in progress and it continues with great gusto. The emphasis on chemicals and receptors has moved on. Whilst interesting to know the microbiology of pain, what the person on pain really needs are practical ways of changing their pain in that moment.
Reflecting on the points made, one can see that the biomedical approach to pain is limited by the fact that pain is a social and public health problem, not a medical problem. Some of the recent best thinking about pain has come from historians, public health experts, English scholars, philosophers, artists, and poets. People ask me how they can learn more about pain. The answer lies in listening and looking at society and people who live the experience. Pain and suffering are ubiquitous. They do not live in a book and certainly not a medical textbook!
So what next?
At UP | understand pain we are working on several projects that will deliver the latest information and thinking about pain to society. Very soon the new UP website will be launched, giving us an online reach across the globe, allowing people to access this information. UP is a social project, working to evolve the way societies think about pain so that suffering can be reduced. With pain being such an individual matter, when only I can feel my pain that is defined by my knowledge, beliefs and experiences to date, the projects must be culturally sensitive. This does not mean going about it carefully, indeed we need to be shouting the current understanding of pain from the rooftops, instead referring to the fact that there is a significant cultural dimension that blends with all other dimensions of the pain experience.
For example, one place that I intend to have an impact is Cambodia (I will explain my reasons in a later blog). The first steps have to include a deeper insight into the current thinking and what factors and beliefs underpin that thinking. We know that it is not simple to replace an existing model with another, even if the latter is more logical and accurate.
Delivering skills and knowledge to people suffering and to those providing the care in principle is straight forward. Much of what is delivered is straight forward, understandable and does not rely on expensive or complicated equipment. The Pain Coach Programme is easily taught and scaled for example, not only giving people what they need to point themselves towards being healthy but creating habits from which emerges healthy, meaningful living. In so doing, pain becomes less and less of a feature, simply because the person is engaged with their life, feeling that sense of being able to make a choice, having meaningful interactions with others, resulting in fulfilment.
Pain is a social issue, a public health issue. Pills, injections and surgery will not solve this problem and in fact can be the cause of increasing reliance on such measures, meaning the individuals have no understanding of what they need to do to get better. Medical interventions do not teach people how to live and whilst there maybe a place for this kind of relief, it must be within the bigger picture, a model of that person’s life that includes all dimensions: e.g./ social, psychological, cultural, gender, biological. The risks of using medication have been well publicised in terms of opioids and this remains a significant social issue.
It is the person who feels pain, the whole person, not the body part. Society’s thinking can evolve in line with what we really know about pain and make a huge impact upon the vast amount of suffering that comes at such great expense. This starts now.