Chronic Pain

By Duygu Biricik Gulseren, PhD 

Assistant Professor, School of Human Resource Management, York University 

We learn pain individually; others can’t teach us or feel it for us, making each experience unique. Pain is a uniquely personal experience. It is shaped by both physical sensations and emotional responses. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines it as an unpleasant blend of sensory and emotional elements associated with actual or potential tissue damage, pain encompasses a wide array of sensations and psychological reactions. Chronic pain, persisting beyond three months, can defy the expectation of tissue damage and result in more complex experiences at the biological, psychological, and social level. 

In workplaces, chronic pain affects a significant portion of the workforce, ranking as the second most common cause of workers’ compensation claims. Mismanagement of chronic pain can ripple through workplaces and lead to decreased productivity, increased absences, elevated medical insurance costs, and legal conflicts. Recognizing chronic pain as a disability, optimizing physical work conditions, promoting job designs that offer autonomy and skill variety, and fostering supportive work environments are crucial steps employers can take to mitigate the impact of chronic pain on their workforce. 

Individuals experiencing chronic pain can explore an array of strategies to manage their condition. Psychological therapies offer a multifaceted approach, encompassing supportive psychotherapy, self-regulatory techniques, operant behavioral interventions, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and mindfulness-based interventions, emotionally expressive approaches, and psychologically informed physical therapy. 

Supportive psychotherapy centers on acceptance and empathy, encouraging individuals to cultivate self-compassion and seek out supportive relationships. Self-regulatory techniques focus on modulating emotional and physiological responses, often through relaxation exercises and biofeedback. Operant behavioral interventions aim to identify and replace maladaptive behaviors with healthier alternatives, promoting active coping strategies. Cognitive-behavioral therapy targets thought patterns that exacerbate pain, empowering individuals to challenge and reshape unhelpful beliefs and judgements. Acceptance and mindfulness-based interventions promote nonjudgmental awareness of bodily sensations, fostering attention and acceptance. Emotionally expressive approaches encourage individuals to confront, and process suppressed emotions and disassociate the strong connection between certain emotions and pain. Psychologically informed physical therapy integrates cognitive-behavioral strategies with physical rehabilitation, addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of chronic pain management. 

While these approaches hold promise, it’s essential for individuals to seek professional guidance and avoid self-diagnosis or self-treatment. Understanding the underlying principles of these therapeutic modalities can empower individuals to navigate their pain journey more effectively, enhancing their overall well-being and quality of life. 


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