Suffering from chronic pain is no picnic. It’s made worse when family members, friends, and even medical professionals insist it is all in a patient’s head. When doctors do treat patients, treatments are often pharmacological or invasive in nature. The question is this: is there a better way? Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may not be better, but it’s an option to consider.
CBT is a rarely discussed treatment for chronic pain. It is not clear why, but it may be that Western medicine has become too reliant on drugs and surgeries. Perhaps we have become so accustomed to the accomplishments of medical science that we have completely discounted the body’s built-in ability to manage pain. CBT is designed to tap into that ability.
Basics of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT is not rooted in pharmacology. It is a talking therapy. Patients sit and talk with their psychiatrists with the goal of better understanding everything from pain perception to how they can change their thoughts and attitudes to better manage pain.
According to doctors at Lone Star Pain Medicine, pain is a perception of the brain. When something that causes pain occurs, the body sends signals to the brain. Those signals are interpreted as pain. Biologically speaking, pain is a warning signal that something is wrong. In that regard, it is actually good.
The perception of pain can be managed by controlling brain activity. This is where CBT comes in. By talking things through, patients can learn to control their brains to some degree. Though they may not be able to eliminate pain entirely, patients can learn how to better manage it by better managing their thoughts and emotions.
CBT’s 4 Goals for Pain Management
It is important to note that CBT is not limit to pain management. It is employed to help manage certain mental illnesses, help drug and alcohol abusers through recovery, and more. CBT has different goals depending on why it is being utilize. CBT has 4 primary goals for chronic pain management:
1. Developing Problem-Solving Skills
One of the most common side effects of chronic pain is a feeling of helplessness. Patients often feel like they cannot do anything to make their lives better. CBT aims to change that thinking by helping them develop problem-solving skills. The idea is to encourage them to find ways around the limits chronic pain has placed on them.
2. Developing Life Skills
CBT seeks to help patients develop life skills that can help them cope with chronic pain. One example of a life skill is learning to recognize what triggers pain episodes so that a patient can avoid such triggers. Learning new life skills often translates into learning new ways to do things.
3. Developing Self-Help Skills
As strange as it sounds, psychiatrists do not want CBT to be open-ended. In fact, CBT is purposely time limited. Thus, another goal of CBT is to teach patients how to help themselves. The goal is to help them learn how to lead themselves through the CBT principals they learn during therapy sessions, so that they continue them after structured treatment has ended.
4. Taking Ownership
For CBT to be effective, patients must take ownership of their treatment plans. To foster this attitude, psychiatrists often assign tasks for patients to perform between sessions. For instance, a doctor may instruct a patient to journal daily thoughts about pain, forcing the individual to think about his or her perceptions.
Chronic pain does not have to be treated exclusively through pharmacological and surgical means. There are other tools doctors can use, including CBT. Perhaps it is time we start talking about CBT more frequently.