Dealing with the Epidemic of Chronic Pain

Madison, Wisconsin – When you hear the word "pain," what thoughts enter your mind?


Active athletes may think about the tweaked knee or ankle that's keeping them from their training regimen.


The lawyer who is putting in long hours trying to make partner may focus on the tension headache that burrows into her temple as she's trying to prepare a case.


Both valid instances of pain, and representative of the kind of pain episodes we consider part of everyday life.


But those examples aren't pain's only expression. For some people, the word has far more dire implications. For some people, pain is a severe and constant companion, robbing them of the ability to work, to play, to enjoy life.


That type of pain is chronic pain, and it's more common than you think.


"More than 100 million people have chronic pain," says health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, who, with fellow health psychologist Janice Singles, PsyD, runs a chronic pain coping group at UW Health's Research Park Clinic. "And those numbers have increased tremendously in recent years as baby boomers age. That is why it is being referred to as an epidemic. It's more widespread than cancer, diabetes and heart disease combined."


In a study published in the August, 2012 edition of The Journal of Pain, Johns Hopkins researchers Darrell J. Baskin and Patrick Richard quantified chronic pain, and in their research came up with a figure so large it's usually comprehensible only when talking about the national debt or annual outlays for military exploits on foreign shores.


Chronic pain costs the United States $635 billion annually. Baskin and Richard found chronic pain increases health care costs, complicates diagnoses and treatment plans for conditions adjacent to pain and mitigates our effectiveness on the job, if we're able to report to work at all.


"Because pain and its effects can impact whether someone is able to work or not, engage in enjoyable activities or even socialize, individuals with chronic pain can become isolated," says Dr. Singles. "The Pain Management and Coping groups provide much needed support, while teaching skills that are useful for coping with the difficult problem of pain."


Isolation can also lead to an increased propensity for other negative changes such as sleep difficulties, getting exhausted more easily, becoming less active, and experiencing mood changes.


Another frequent byproduct for people who live with extended episodes of chronic pain is to begin to dwell on worst-case pain scenarios, which in turn can create increased arousal and pain. This negative thinking pattern is referred to as "catastrophizing."


Dr. Mirgain notes, "Individuals who 'catastrophize' have poorer outcomes. Learning to identify and change this pattern of thinking is important to improving quality of life and managing pain."


"We look at decreasing thoughts that aren't helpful," says Dr. Singles, and in doing so helping patients feel more in control of their pain. "It doesn't always mean that pain goes away, but when people feel a sense of empowerment, that's a positive thing."


Dr. Singles and Dr. Mirgain organize their group to help people do just that. In these sessions, they encourage people to develop specific skills for dealing with chronic pain. Pain is a complex problem, and developing coping skills, says Dr. Singles, has been shown to lead to positive outcomes.


"Chronic pain requires day-to-day management," Dr. Singles says. "Treatment encourages developing realistic goals, and learning to move toward those goals by pacing energy and time."


Those skills include relaxation techniques which quiet the arousal in the body hastened by chronic pain. The "toolbox" of coping mechanisms Dr. Singles and Dr. Mirgain offer are simple, effective strategies that group participants can use and build upon according to their individual levels of comfort.


"One technique doesn't necessarily work for everyone. We teach a variety of different approaches, as different people need different tools," Dr. Mirgain says. "And we always encourage people not to lose hope."


"No matter where they're at," says Dr. Singles, "we're always working to improve their quality-of-life. Pain does not need to define them. Who they are is much more than their pain."


For more information about the Pain Management and Coping Group, please call (608) 890-6464. You can learn more about Dr. Singles' and Dr. Mirgain's work at


Date Published: 03/19/2013

News tag(s):  pain

News RSS Feed