If you’ve had pain that has lasted months, or even years — whether due to arthritis, a nerve injury, cancer, or another health condition — you might wonder if you’ll ever feel or function like you used to. Constant pain can make a person feel hopeless, but a pain psychologist could help. Pain psychologists are doctors who specialize in pain psychology and who provide evaluation and therapy to people with chronic pain.
“It’s not uncommon that when people come to see me, they question why they’re there,” said Charlotte Brown, PhD, a clinical psychologist at UPMC who specializes in treating pain. “Sometimes they question whether the team thinks that it’s in their head, and I reassure them that we know their pain is real. They’re referred to me so I can help them develop better ways of functioning and coping with the pain.”
Here’s how a psychologist like Dr. Brown could help you or a loved one with chronic pain.
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How a Pain Psychologist Can Help
Dealing With Emotions
Not surprisingly, physical pain can also cause emotional suffering. Dr. Brown said it’s common for people with chronic pain to feel that the pain isn’t fair, to express concern over letting family members down, or to worry about being a burden to others. Dr. Brown helps people work through these emotions and helps them focus on what they can achieve. She also helps people experiencing depression and anxiety as a result of chronic pain.
“I clarify that we’re not trying to label them, we’re trying to use different avenues to help them get better,” said Dr. Brown.
Dr. Brown asks patients how they expect their functionality and pain to improve after therapy. Some people expect to function the same way they did before the pain began, but that’s not always possible. She wants people to focus on setting realistic goals. It’s important to know that if you have chronic pain, you may not get back to feeling or functioning as you did before — but that doesn’t mean you won’t see improvement.
What to Expect If You See a Pain Psychologist
A pain psychologist usually works together with a pain specialist, who provides evaluation and medical therapy. Therapy might include a nerve block — an injection that numbs a group of nerves — and/or oral medicines.
You may see a pain psychologist who is part of a multidisciplinary team, like Dr. Brown who works on the UPMC Musculoskeletal Pain Program. In addition to Dr. Brown, the team includes a pain specialist, physiatrist, psychologist, physical therapist, dietician, and sleep specialist. Each doctor brings a different perspective to treating chronic pain. Together, they work to determine the best approach for each patient to improve their functioning and reduce physical pain and emotional distress. Treatment may include dietary changes, physical therapy, and attending to underlying health conditions.
If you think you or a loved one could benefit from seeing a doctor who specializes in pain psychology, visit the UPMC Musculoskeletal Pain Program at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, or call 412-647-9940 to make an appointment.
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At UPMC, we strive to improve your function after injury or illness. We help people recover from functional, pain-related, and neurological conditions, with both inpatient and outpatient care available. We are dedicated to providing you with exceptional clinical care and focused on developing new technologies and treatments to help you achieve mobility and maintain independence. Find a provider near you.