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In this episode, Co-President of the American Association of Pain Psychology, Dr. Rachel Zoffness, talks about treating chronic pain.
Today, Rachel talks about the failed biomedical model, pain neuroscience, and effective non-pharmaceutical pain treatments. When is the right time to refer someone to a pain coach? What are some multidisciplinary approaches to pain management?
Hear about the biopsychosocial nature of pain, how pain treatment in the US is actually about money, how thoughts and emotions affect pain, and The Pain Management Workbook, all on today’s episode of The Healthy, Wealthy & Smart Podcast.
- “What science tells us is pain is not purely biomedical. It’s actually this different and more complex thing, which is biopsychosocial.”
- “Pain is complex, and doing one single thing over years and years that has not worked, is probably not the right way to go.”
- “Pain is never purely physical. It’s always also emotional.”
- “Unless we’re taking care of our thoughts and emotions, we’re actually not really treating this thing we call pain effectively.”
- “If it’s okay to go to soccer coach to get better at playing soccer, it is surely okay to go to a pain coach to get better at living with chronic pain.”
- “96% of medical schools in the US and Canada have zero dedicated compulsory pain education.”
- “Pain, by definition, is a subjective experience.”
- “Keep doing exactly what you’re doing and follow your gut. Trust your intuition, and know that following the path of the thing that you love is the thing that’s going to bring you to where you need to be professionally.”
More about Rachel Zoffness
Dr. Rachel Zoffness is a pain psychologist and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the UCSF School of Medicine, where she teaches pain education for medical residents. She serves as pain education faculty at Dartmouth and completed a visiting professorship at Stanford University. Dr. Zoffness is the Co-President of the American Association of Pain Psychology, and serves on the board of the Society of Pediatric Pain Medicine.
She is the author of The Pain Management Workbook, an integrative, evidence-based treatment protocol for adults living with chronic pain; and The Chronic Pain and Illness Workbook for Teens, the first pain workbook for youth. She also writes the Psychology Today column “Pain, Explained.”
Dr. Zoffness is a 2021 Mayday Fellow and consults on the development of integrative pain programs around the world. She was trained at Brown University, Columbia University, UCSD, SDSU, NYU, and St. Luke’s-Mt. Sinai Hospital.
Pain, Psychosocial, Emotional, Physical, Neuroscience, Treatment, Thoughts, Management, Healthy, Wealthy, Smart, Coach, Physiotherapy, Healing,
Dr. Zoffness Latest Podcast: Healing Our Pain Pandemic
Dr. Zoffness’s Book: The Pain Management Workbook
To learn more, follow Rachel at:
Twitter: Dr. Zoffness
LinkedIn: Rachel Zoffness
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Read the full transcript here:
Okay, so whenever so I, you will know when we’re recording because like I said, I’ll do like I’ll do a quick clap. And then I’ll just say, hey, doctor’s office. Welcome to the podcast and off we go. Okay, ready? Perfect. Okay. Hi, Dr. softness. Welcome to the podcast, I am excited to have you on today to talk about chronic pain and treating patients with chronic pain. So this is a real treat. So thanks for coming on. I think you are very cool. Karen Litzy. And I’m excited to be here. Excellent. So what I what we’re going to talk about today, just so the listeners knows, we’re going to talk about kind of treating chronic pain from a bio psychosocial standpoint versus a biomedical standpoint. So I know a lot of people have no idea what those terms mean. So doctor’s office, would you mind filling in the listeners as to what a biomedical model is and what a bio psychosocial model is? to kind of set the tone for the rest of the podcast?
I totally Can I talk about this all the time, because it makes me so mad. Okay. So the biomedical model is the one that we all know the best, because it’s the way we’ve been treating pain for many decades. And the biomedical model of treating pain and health in general, is essentially viewing and understanding and treating pain as a problem that is purely the result of bio biological or biomedical processes like tissue damage and system dysfunction, and on anatomical issues, and then throwing pills and procedures at it. That is how we’ve been treating pain for many decades. And of course, we know it isn’t working, we have an opioid epidemic, the opioid epidemic is getting worse during the COVID pandemic. People are really suffering, chronic pain is on the rise. It’s not being cured. It’s not magically disappearing. incidence isn’t even decreasing. So the way we’re doing it is broken, and also very expensive for people living with pain. However, what science tells us is that pain is not purely biomedical. It has never been purely biomedical. It’s actually this different and more complex thing, which surprises nobody, which is bio psychosocial, which is a big and complicated word, but makes intuitive sense, once we start talking about it, I think to people who have experienced pain, which means that yes, of course there are biological processes at work when we’re living with pain, acute and chronic. And I can say what those mean to short term pain versus long term pain, longer term pain.
Yes, and there are also many other processes that work too. So if you imagine this Venn diagram of three overlapping bubbles, which I draw a lot, but I cannot draw right now, we’ve got the biological or the biomedical bubble on the top. And then we’ve got the psychological bubble. And that’s the one that I struggle to explain to people the most, because I think there’s so much stigma around this idea that cognitive and psychological processes might be involved in this experience we call pain because there’s so much shame and embarrassment and stigma around anything to do with psychology, which is so unfortunate. But in this psychology bubble of pain, there’s a lot of stuff that I think people know intuitively can amplify or reduce pain. So there’s thoughts about your body and about your pain and just thoughts you’re having about life in general. There’s emotions, like stress and anxiety and depression, even suicidality. And we know that negative emotions amplify pain. And we know that positive emotions can sort of turn pain volume down, there’s memories of past pain experiences. And those are stored in a part of your brain called the hippocampus. And we know research shows that memories of past pain experiences can change your current experience of pain. And also in the psychology bubble, we’ve got coping behaviors. So that’s quite literally how you deal with the pain you have. And a lot of us who have lived with pain, and that does include me engage in a lot of coping behaviors that make sense in the moment. But actually, they can make pain feel worse over time. And a great example of that is the resting indefinitely plan or the doing nothing plan, as I like to call it which is totally, you know, normal and natural for those of us who pay into Engage in because when your body is telling you, you know that you’re hurting, it’s understandable that the thing you think you’re supposed to do is stop all activity. But ultimately, what we know about that particular coping behavior is that it makes chronic pain in particular worse over time. So the do nothing plan or the stay home or rest indefinitely plan is a coping behavior that lives in the psychology bubble that can actually make pain feel worse. And of course, there’s coping behaviors that can make pain feel less bad, like the counterintuitive things like leaving your house and seeing people and walking and getting out into the sunshine. And, you know, these things that we don’t necessarily know can help pain. And then the third, overlapping bubble, and our bio, psychosocial Venn diagram, is the social or the sociological domain of pain. And that’s what I like to call the everything else bubble. So it’s socio economic status. And family and friends have culture and race and ethnicity and access to care, and socio economic status, and history of trauma and early adverse childhood experiences, and culture, and context. And environment, like quite literally, everything else your environment, believe it not changes the pain you feel. And in the middle of those three things, and I know that’s a lot of things, is pain. So when we try and pretend that pain is just this simple biomedical thing, the treatments don’t work. And I think all of us who have lived with pain know that our pain is much more complicated and sticky. I know that was a lot of words.
No, and, and I’m glad that you described everything in the way that you did, because I think that gives the listeners a really good idea of what’s in each of those bubbles. Number one, and number two, how complex pain actually is. Exactly, it’s not. So if I think if the listeners take away anything from this conversation, if pain is complex, and doing one single thing repeatedly over years, and years and years and years, that has not worked, it’s probably not the right way to go.
That’s right. And you know, the other misconception that we all understandably have is that, you know, the way to treat pain is just by going to your physician. And, of course, that makes perfect sense. But we have this misconception in western medicine, that either you have physical pain, and you see a physician, or you have emotional pain, and you go to a therapist, or a psychologist, someone like me, and the really fascinating thing about pain, and the reason I love studying it, and treating it and talking about it so much is that neuroscience tells us that pain is never purely physical, it’s always also emotional, because the part of your brain called the limbic system actually processes pain 100% of the time. So pain is always both physical and emotional. But most people don’t know that most people have never been told that. But the limbic system plays a huge role in the experience of pain. And we know that, you know, emotions are always changing pain volume all the time. So this idea that pain is either physical or emotional, is not actually a thing, you know, and the way we treat pain by going to a physician exclusively is not actually nine times out of 10, probably more than that going to actually, you know, be the answer for any sort of chronic pain problem.
And so I’m glad that you brought that up that yes, we know emotions play a role in pain. And as a matter of fact, the International Association for the Study of pain, change their definition of pain in 2019, I believe to include that it is an emotional experience. And I think that really set the stage for greater discussion and research, which I think is amazing. But when you say to someone,
let’s see, can I interrupt the flow to say, they did change the definition, but the the word emotion was always in there? Oh, was it? It was? Okay.
Let me so when we talk about kind of the emotional part of pain, and I have had patients say this to me, which probably meant I was explaining it incorrectly, and I take full responsibility for that. And I’m sure you’ve heard this before his patients saying, so you’re saying it’s all in my head. Totally. And how do you react to that?
Yeah. I love that. You asked that question. I think probably the worst thing about being a pain psychologist is you know, you’re the last stop on the train. You’re the last person anyone wants to see nobody wants to go to a psychologist or a mental health professional for a physical experience like pain. And I know you can’t see me, but I’m putting air quotes around the word physical. Because again, pain is not a purely physical experience. It’s physical and emotional. But of course, no one wants to go to a pain psychologist for pain, right? You think you’re supposed to go to a physician, and a referral to a psychologist means you must be crazy or mentally ill or the pain is on your head. And no, that’s not what it means at all. And I find that the way that I most effectively target that is by explaining, believe it or not pain neuroscience. And I, I usually do that in the simplest way, I know how just by distilling down that, that, you know, it’s easy to believe that pain is something that lives exclusively in the body, right? Like, if you have back pain, it’s so easy to believe that that pain lives exclusively in your back. But what we know and what neuroscience has taught us is that actually, it’s your brain working in concert with your body that’s constructing this experience we call pain. And we know that because of this condition called phantom limb pain, wherein, you know, someone will lose a limb like an arm or a leg and will continue to feel terrible pain in the missing body part. And if pain lived exclusively in the body, no limb should mean no pain. So if you the fact that you can continue to have terrible leg pain, when you have no leg tells us that pain can’t possibly live exclusively in the body. And I find that when I explain this to the patients who come see me, first of all, there’s more buy in that the role of the brain in pain is really significant. And second of all, it sort of gives me some leverage to then explain that, again, one of the parts of the brain. And one of the most influential, influential parts of the brain that processes pain is your limbic system, which is your brain’s emotion center. So unless we’re taking care of your thoughts and emotions, we’re actually not really treating this thing we call pain effectively, we’re just treating one small component of it. So that’s, you know, and I also always, by the way, validate that, of course, you have, you know, of course, it feels like someone’s saying that the pain is on your head, or that it’s a psychological problem. Because of this, again, this like false and ridiculous divide we have in western medicine between physical pain and emotional pain, when neuroscience has known for decades that that’s not actually a real distinction, like your head is connected to your body 100% of the time, you know?
Yeah, absolutely. And as let’s say, as a practitioner who’s not a pain psychologist, a physical therapist, occupational therapist, maybe your yoga Pilates, and you are working with someone with persistent pain? How, how can we encourage our patients or recommend to our patients, that, hey, you might really benefit from seeing a pain psychologist, without them thinking that we’re telling them they’re crazy? Yeah.
I do think that taking 30 seconds, or maybe even 60, to explain, you know, this basic painter science thing. And the phantom limb thing is a really, really effective strategy. So anybody can use that. That piece of information. You don’t have to be a pain psychologist. So that’s thing one is just like taking a few moments to talk about how pain works in the brain. I think patients are so grateful to learn that no one’s ever told them this before you’re going to be the first person to ever let them know. And then the other thing that I always do is a trick that I learned from a really nerdy journal article I read years ago by a guy named Scott powers. And he said that one trick that we can use is to call pain psychologists or you know, therapists who are trained in things like cognitive behavioral therapy for pain, pain coaches, and I love that. So I usually tell physicians and other allied health professionals to refer to me as a pain coach. And the way I pitch that to families and tell other health care providers to pitch it to their patients is to say, if it’s okay to go to a soccer coach, to get better at playing soccer, it is surely okay to go to a pain coach to get better at living with chronic pain. Because living with pain is so hard. And you deserve support. You know, and usually that removes the stigma and the stigma, especially when you present that in conjunction with some science that supports the role of the brain and the role of cognitions and the read the role of emotions and coping behaviors. In the experience of pain, I find that that really is super effective.
Yeah, that’s really helpful and a great way to frame how to frame that recommendation to someone coming from someone like me coming from a PT because people often come to physical therapists I mean, it’s in the name Because they want us to heal or to fix their physical problem, which in this case is persistent pain or chronic pain. And so then that leads me to my next question is, as a physical therapist or as someone who’s working with the body, when do we refer this person to a pain coach or pain psychologist?
I’m curious to know what you’re going to think of my answer. Ready? Here’s my answer. I once had a friend who said to me, man, like, everyone’s always going around talking about how many miles they ran today. And you know, how you like the Strava app, like, you know, how many miles they biked? And how many hours they did yoga this week? And can you imagine what it would be like if everybody, you know, came, came to each other and started bragging about how many hours they spent working on their shit? Like, what I spent three hours working on my anxiety today, or like my family stuff? Or like, my complicated relationship is, like, just why do we prioritize working on the body over working on our minds? You know, it’s so strange. So my honest answer is if you’re ever treating a patient who’s living with chronic pain, and again, that’s pain that’s lasted three or more months, I think it’s worth a referral to a pain psychologist or therapist who’s trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. I just, I can’t imagine any human being who wouldn’t benefit from the opportunity to navigate the complicated experience that is living with pain and having someone in the role of support and coping behavior coach is just, you know, and partner and in processing, the experience of it just just seems to me like such a great gift to be able to give to patients.
And my answer to how I react to it is I agree. And, and again, this takes into a takes into account really this multi discipline, multi disciplinary approach to pain and approach to pain treatments and management. And so in your opinion, what makes that multidisciplinary approach effective for that patient?
I mean, what the research shows is that trying to approach and treat pain from just one angle is usually not sufficient, because as we were saying at the beginning, pain is such a complex, bio psychosocial thing. So if we’re just looking at the biomedical components, we’re not really doing our job, if we’re just looking at the psychosocial components, we’re not really doing our job. So, you know, a multidisciplinary team as a team made up of, you know, psychologists and pts, and OTS and physicians and nurses and biofeedback providers, and all these different people who are sort of coming at this complicated things from maybe slightly different angles and perspectives. And when we do that, what the research shows is, we have the most robust outcomes, the care is most effective, and the most comprehensive, and people walk away with a whole tool belt of tools to use when treating their pain, you know, across scenarios and across symptoms. So multi disciplinary is really like, how can we all come together as a team with our unique backgrounds and our unique training because, you know, as you know, trainings, especially in the United States, the disciplines are also siloed. You know, like, psychologists are trained in this one way, and pts are doing this thing over here. And OTS are over there. And anesthesiologists are over there as physiatrist. Or, I mean, it’s just it’s so fractured. So a multidisciplinary team is hopefully working together to target this complex animal that we call chronic pain. And what’s really interesting is, you know, I have a private practice, where I see a lot of patients with chronic pain. But I feel like the bulk of my work sometimes is coordinating care with this really complicated treatment team. And I’m seeing a really complicated patient right now who has crps complex regional pain syndrome, which is a really tricky, chronic pain syndrome. And, you know, the way that we his case has been so complicated. It’s been many years of treatment. And I think today as a team, we finally decided upon a treatment plan. And it really wasn’t until we all were talking that that came together and jelled. So I think that’s one of the most important components of treatment actually.
Yeah, I, I agree. And and when you’re in private practice, like you said, sometimes it can be a little bit more difficult, but the more communication you have with people on that team, again, we’re doing all of this for the person in the center and that’s the patient and so being being able to provide vied so much coordinated care for that patient. Like you said, the research has shown that this is that this works versus a piecemeal, one person’s doing this over here. And someone’s doing this over here, and they’re hearing, and then the patient’s hearing contradictory treatment plans. And so it gets really confusing.
Yeah, it gets super confusing when there’s, it’s almost like too many cooks in the kitchen, if you’re not working together, because they’re getting all this different advice from all these different people. And oftentimes, and I’m sure you’ve seen this, too, they’re on, you know, 40, they’ve tried 40 different medications by the time they’ve gotten to you. And, you know, I mean, I think what it leads to is like, this treatment, burnout, where like, our patients are just so burned out on all the treatments they’ve tried, and they have this sense of hopelessness, like, nothing’s gonna work. Nothing’s working. So far. I’ve tried all these things. I’ve seen 40,000 million doctors, and, you know, I’ve, yeah, I’ve tried herbs. And yeah,
I’ve heard that from people like, they’re like, I don’t want to go to one like I’m all doctored out, if I have to go see one more doctor, or take one more medication, or do one more procedure, or one more scan, like I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore. Yeah. And I blame them. Yeah, it’s exhausting. It’s totally exhausting. And you know, we’ve been talking about things that don’t work. Right. So we talked about all that being on medication after medication, opioids, we know these, they don’t work for people with chronic pain. So let’s talk about non pharmacological treatments. And what does work or what can work for people with chronic pain, so I’ll throw it over to you.
Yeah, so non pharmacological treatments, there’s like a whole host of them, there’s a wide range of them. And there’s a lot of literature on a bunch of different things. So what I use the most in my practice, because I really love it and have found it to be so effective is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which is different by the way than CB, cb, D, that’s something different CBT cognitive behavioral therapy. And an arm off of that is a treatment called Act, which is acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is become very big in the PT world, which by the way, originated from CBT, and was adapted for pain. There, there’s also Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or mbsr, which has a huge literature base for the treatment of chronic pain. And there’s other things too, like biofeedback, I happen to really love as a treatment for pain. And there’s a whole host of other things, too. But, yeah, God,
I was gonna say, could you explain briefly what biofeedback is so that people understand what that is? Exactly.
I’m so glad you asked. I’ve been doing this for so long that I forget. I just forget that. Certain things are not known entities. But I also did not know what biofeedback was when I first started treating chronic pain. And so I’ll someone said to me, oh, you’re treating patients with pain, you should refer them to biofeedback. And I said, You know, I don’t refer my patients to things that I don’t understand. So I did a buttload, of reading about biofeedback for pain, and I got a bunch of books. And then I found myself a biofeedback provider. And I went to this gentleman, his name is Dr. Eric pepper. Dr. Pepper is just a great name for any doctor. And He is a professor at the University of San Francisco and I admired him right away, he was obviously very smart. And he sat me down in a chair. And he hooked me up to this machine. And he said, This machine is going to read a bunch of your biological outputs, it’s going to read muscle tension, galvanic skin response, your finger temperature, and a bunch of other things, your heart rate. And I was like, what that’s really interesting. And he showed me which monitor was, you know, giving me feedback about which thing and hopefully you’re picking up on the fact that there’s biological processes that you’re getting feedback about? And he said, and now I’m going to teach you to raise your finger temperature to 90 degrees, using your mind. And I said, Excuse me, sir. I am a scientist. And I do not believe in Voodoo. And he said, Well, how about you just try it out and see how it goes. So he did a couple of techniques with me had me close my eyes, he did some relaxation strategies, and diaphragmatic breathing, and he used imagery of like hot soup and hot air flowing down my arms from my shoulders into my fingertips, and autogenic training and autogenic phrases and that’s when you say things to yourself that are suggestive like my arms are heavy and warm. My hands are heavy and warm. And as I was doing, as I was doing all these things, I noticed, because the machines were giving me feedback about my biology, that my hand temperature was going up. And within two sessions, I was able to warm my hands using my mind. And I am a person with chronically cold hands, because I’m stressed out all the time. And no one had ever told me that cold hands and feet, by the way, are a sign that you are stressed out. So I can now warm my hands on command, which is absolute magic. And when I teach it to my patients, they oftentimes say things like, Oh my god, I can make fireballs with my hands with my mind, what else can I do? And that’s exactly what we want. For people living with pain, this idea that the mind and body are connected 100% of the time, and that you have more agency and control over your body than you thought you did. And you can make changes to formerly unconscious biological processes like skin temperature and muscle tension and pain. And biofeedback teaches you some skills to do that. Which is why I really like it so much.
Yeah, it sounds so like sci fi doctor who kind of stuff. Dr. Pepper. Exactly. Yeah, right. Exactly. Right. But yeah, it just sounds like Wait, what? But yes, I mean, I’ve never I have not done biofeedback myself, but it is something that I’m just constantly interested in for the exact reasons that you just said, like, Whoa, I can control what my body does. This is pretty cool.
It’s worth it, I highly recommend it. It is so worth it. It’s it makes you feel like, you know, it’s this sense of like, if you almost feel like the Incredible Hulk like gotta have all this untapped power and potential that I just didn’t even know about.
Yeah, it’s, it’s wild. Thank you for giving us that kind of definition of biofeedback, because I guarantee a lot of people who are listening did not know that at all. I didn’t either, I totally didn’t either. Very, very cool. So now, all of this, these non pharmacological treatments, CBT, a CT, biofeedback, we can maybe put physical therapy, occupational therapy into that as well. I mean, obviously, all of these things, cost the system money cost the patient money. But let’s talk about the money aspect of treating pain, especially here in the United States. So what, you know, when people think about treat treatment of chronic pain, they often don’t think about the money involved. So I will throw it over to you to kind of elaborate on that, and what does what that means for the patient and for the system.
You’re actually making me realize that when you asked me about non farm approaches, I of course, immediately went to like, you know, like psychological treatments for pain. But yeah, of course, you’re right, PT, OT, all these things, of course, are all the things and approaches. Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, it was a really sad day for me, when I realized that the treatment of pain historically has actually been about money. That was a really sad wake up call for me. So I used to be a member of this organization called the American pain society, it was very well established, very well known organization. And they went belly up after it came out. And I don’t know if this is proven or not. But I should say, after they were accused of taking money from Big Pharma, to promote the use of opioids for the treatment of pain, despite the fact that it was known that opioids a were highly addictive, and habit forming and B sensitize the brain to pain over time and are therefore not actually effective. Because if you go off of them, as most people who have tried this, no, pain feels worse, your brain is actually more sensitive to pain. And so they went belly up, and they were, and then I read this book that was formative for me, by Anna Lemke. Le MBKE, who is now a friend of mine, called drug dealer, MD, drug dealer, MD, a very controversial and very compelling title. It is a thin, little book, I think it came out in 2016. If I’m not mistaken, I read it. Or I should say, I consumed it in a couple of hours. And I am not someone who writes in books. But I must have written on every page of this book. You must be joking. Oh Mfg. Like curse words and exclamation points. Because essentially, it’s the story of how pain medicine has been about earning a buck off of people who are suffering and as we all know, with these lawsuits that are now how Like with the Sackler family and a lot of and also big pharma, you know, what we’re learning is that despite the fact that these people and these companies have known for many, many years that opioids are highly addictive, highly habit forming not actually effective over time. And, you know, especially in high doses. Yeah, it’s sort of this story of like, you know, follow the money. It’s sort of horrifying. So, you know, I also have had conversations with physician colleagues who say things to me, it’s a true story that, you know, it’s clear that pain psychology plays a huge role in pain and pain management, and would be hugely helpful as with all of these psychosocial treatments, but that a lot of the times because insurance doesn’t reimburse these treatments, they either don’t get recommended, or they don’t get integrated into pain management programs, even at hospitals sometimes, because insurance reimbursement is so crappy, which is just like another eye opening moment like we wait. So you’re saying that, you know, these things work? You say that, you know, they’re effective, but we’re not recommending them and we’re not hiring pain psychologists, because insurance doesn’t reimburse. So again, it’s a money thing. What? So the effective treatments are out there, they’re known entities. But, you know, big pharma has billions of dollars to, you know, promote this idea that pain is a purely biomedical problem that requires a purely biomedical solution. So as long as you believe that you’re going to buy into that model, and you know, as long as insurance companies are not reimbursing non farm approaches to pain, then you know, we’re going to say stay stuck in this loop of treating pain, like a biomedical problem when we know it’s a bio psychosocial one. So it’s really complicated. Just this discovery that pain medicine has historically really been about the dollar. And it’s sort of nauseating and horrifying.
Well, I mean, I think you can take away pain from that and just say medicine.
Yeah. Insert health condition here.
Yeah, yeah, I think it doesn’t matter what it is, right? Because it’s always going to come back to following the money and where, where can you get the biggest bang for your buck? And unfortunately, that, like you said, Those non pharmacological treatments are oftentimes not covered. So you’re getting zero bang for your buck. So as a business, which a hospital is, even if it’s not for profit, or an outpatient clinic, are you going to do things you’re not going to get reimbursed for? Right, you know,
no, you know, that’s true. And like, I don’t mean to sound on empathic. Like, of course, yes, hospitals are businesses, and they have to stay open, and they have to earn money. So so the question for me, like, as I roll along, in this world of this totally insane world of pain medicine, and build my own business, by the way, like, how do we change the system? Like, yeah, we really are patient, patient centric, and like our goal, actually, at the end of the day, is to help our patients get well, what needs to change first, like, does public perception and understanding of pain need to change first? Like, do we need to be training our healthcare providers across disciplines better, like in PT, school, and in OT, school, and in psychology programs like mine, where By the way, I was in school for 40 100 years, and I got zero training and pain, like in my undergrad, brown neuroscience class, we learned about pain, and I became obsessed, and then like, wrote papers and stuff, but but that was it, like not, I have two master’s degrees never learned about pain. At no point in my PhD program, did we get training and pain? So? So like, do we need to go, you know, backwards and insert pain education programs in medical schools? Yeah, I know, I know, you and I have talked about this, like the statistic that I’m obsessed with, like 96% of medical schools, in the united in the United States and Canada have zero dedicated compulsory pain education. So it’s like, where do we start with this problem, isn’t it? Do we like go after the insurance companies and reimbursement rates? where like, where the it’s the system is so broken, I sometimes get discouraged, like, where do we start? But I think I actually think what you’re doing is a really great place to start, like educating healthcare providers, and the general public about pain, and getting enough people riled up and angry about the way pain has been mistreated, and the way we’re Miss educating our health care providers are just not even bothering. Maybe that’s the place to start. Like maybe if there’s enough of a clamor, and enough people are pissed off about it. Something will change.
Yeah. And and I agree, I think education, education, education, it has to start there. And especially in medicine, in medical school, especially with the physicians who are oftentimes they are the frontline providers, right, your your regular, your local PCP, primary care physician is often your frontline person and But they’re also the people who were traditionally prescribing opioids for everyone, when they would come in with back pain instead of saying, Hmm, maybe maybe you need to see a physical therapist or a pain psychologist, let’s sit down and talk to you. How can we let’s find out what your needs are, what your bio psychosocial needs are. And so I think if, as the practitioner if you’re not getting any education in that you don’t know what you don’t know. So you’re not going to do it. And then I agree, I think, and I think insurance companies need to reimburse doctors and therapists across the board to talk to their patients. Talking doesn’t get reimbursed procedures get reimbursed. Right. Right. What’s the most important part of diagnosis when you’re with a patient? talking to them, understanding what’s going on with them, like that is paramount, and that needs to be reimbursed. But insurance companies won’t do that they won’t reimburse you for talking with your patient. Especially if you’re like a PT, we get reimbursed by codes. And and none of those codes are, I’m going to really sit down and try and get into the nuts and bolts of what my patient’s problem is. So
yeah, we need to code for pain, education, community, healthcare provider to patient.
Yeah, yeah. And some people say, Oh, you could use like the neuromuscular, neuromuscular treatment code for that. But there should be a code for let’s talk to our patients, there should be a code for the subjective exam. Yep. Yeah. Oh, yeah. Because how were you supposed to learn about their bio psycho social situation, if you can’t talk to them? And ask those probing questions, ask those open ended questions, like you said, In the beginning, bio, psychosocial, a lot of things go into that bucket. And we as the practitioners need to learn as much as we can about all those things that go into that bucket, if we’re going to treat this patient efficiently.
There’s so many things in the bucket. And I think, when we assess issues that have to do with pain, we really are assessing the biomedical bucket like 99% of the time. And, you know, if we really are thinking about this as this Venn diagram with three bubbles, if you’re only assessing or looking at the biological domain of pain, you’re literally missing two thirds of the pain problem. It’s just wild to think about it that way. Yeah, if not more? Yeah, yeah, exactly more right now. So like, maybe all of us should be assessing for history of trauma. And maybe all of us should be assessing for aces, the adverse childhood experiences, which we know there’s like this slew of studies that show that aces impact, you know, the development of chronic pain and illness and adults, maybe we should all be assessing for, you know, abuse and, you know, poor access to care. And just like so many things that we need to assess for if we’re actually going to, you know, do a workup of pain, and instead of just this, you know, tell me about your anatomical issues. And let me do some scans.
Right, right, on a scale of zero to 10. How would your pain? Oh, it’s a 10 out of 10? Well, this is like my little soapbox is what I hate. I see this a lot in physical therapy, student Facebook groups, things like that. Yep. And you know where I’m going with this? They’ll say, Oh, well, if someone comes to me, and they’re 10, out of 10, I’m going to call the ambulance because they must need to be in the emergency room. Poor education, that therapist was not educated on pain. No, I’ve not. No, that’s wild. Yeah, I hear this all the time. Or those similar Sam 10 out of 10. It’s a really, because if like I chopped your hand off, that would be 10 out of 10. So what’s your pain now?
Right? Like this? Right? This lack of awareness that pain, by definition is a subjective human experience. And whatever your patient says it is, that is what it is. And you you actually don’t get to argue with them about it. You don’t negotiate down someone’s pain. Right. And I mean, I think what I’ve learned over time about pain is there’s really valuable clinical information when your patient tells you, like I hear a lot of times like 11 out of 10 literally what your patient is communicating to you is I can’t handle this anymore. It’s beyond my capacity to cope with this level of suffering. That is what they’re saying to you. And usually also, at least for me as someone who really, really likes and appreciates the pain catastrophizing scale, the PCs, which is a potentially controversial term, some people don’t like the term catastrophizing, I happen to appreciate it. I think it’s very valuable, but don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. But the pain catastrophizing scale, but they’re also telling me is that when people tell me their pains, Out of 10 or an 11 out of 10, there’s a high likelihood that their thoughts around their pain are very intense and catastrophic, and that they’re having very intense emotions around their pain too. So it’s good clinical information. You know, like you said, You can’t bargain with someone about their pain number. Yes, we don’t pain haggle. Right. Right. It’s not like being at the market. No, like a price price that you get on fish. But but there’s rich clinical information in there, if you’re willing to, like, Listen for it, they’re telling me that they’re having an emotional experience that’s beyond their ability to
navigate. Right to cope. And, and that’s where I think like, I’ll ask that question to all of my patients, because for me, that’s my window to crawl in, and really get down to maybe the psycho or the social part of their pain experience. So like you said, if someone says to me, oh, my pain is like, it’s at 12 out of 10. Today, and I’ll say, Okay, well, can you tell me a little bit more about that? You know, what are you? What are you? What are your feelings around that? Or what’s going on at home? What are your responsibilities at home? How does, you know? How does that play into why this pain is? 12? out of 10? Today, right? Right, you know, so it is, like, I always ask the question, but it’s a nice way to kind of get in and be able to ask more questions. And, and just because someone says their pain is 12 out of 10, it doesn’t mean you call the ambulance, they shouldn’t be in the emergency room, they probably worked all day have to go home and have two kids to take care of. Yeah. And they’re doing all of this at a 12 out of 10. because like you said, they’ve reached the end of their way to the ladder. And our job as clinicians is to increase their capacity to handle that. And how and to do that, like you said before, through a multidisciplinary approach to pain management is really the way to go. Because now you have more people who can add to that capacity. Yep. So anyway, that’s my soapbox. I will come down stepping down from the soapbox. I appreciate your soapbox. I think Kevin, I’m Sherif share box, but it drives me crazy. Okay, so we talked a lot about different treatments. And I want to talk about treatment that you have created the pain management workbook. So let’s talk about that. And how this book that you wrote, can help people who are experiencing pain.
One of the nicest emails I got in the last couple of weeks was from someone named Karen Litzy, who responded to my email and said that she really liked the pain management workbook and was referring to her patients. And I happen to admire Karen Litzy. So I was really flattered by that. So so the pain management workbook isn’t on its own, like some new fangled treatment plan. But rather, I got really frustrated by what I felt like was a lack of resources out there for people living with pain, and also for healthcare providers. In particular, you know, I am a nerd, like a real nerd. And I think pain is just so interesting, and complex and fascinating that I have like, amassed all of these books and journal articles and, you know, resources. But I felt like there really wasn’t something that synthesized it in language that all of us can understand and easily give to our patients. So I took a lot of stuff that I loved and was reading, like there’s a book called pain, the science of suffering, that I happen to really love. And there’s all this work by Lorimer, Moseley, and Adrian low in the PT world, I happen to really love the way I love the language they use for explaining pain. And there’s all this neuroscience literature out there that I think is so fascinating and so useful, like melzack, and walls, gate control, theory of pain, and all the things that have evolved from there. You know, and there’s all these workbooks on cognitive behavioral therapy for pain, but I couldn’t find something that, in my mind, put together all of it into one resource that, you know, anybody with pain can pick up and use right away and use have exercises and guided audio and handouts and all that stuff. So So I wanted to create something that was very user friendly, and I felt like especially during COVID, having accessible and affordable resources could not be more important because here we are talking about how pain at the end of the day is often about money and care is so expensive, and you know, cognitive behavioral therapy and these other things that are not easily or readily reimbursed, end up costing families and patients, sometimes many 1000s of dollars and it should Then be that way. So I literally took everything I was doing in my practice, and everything I was reading and stuck it in a workbook. So it’s a lot of pain education. And I have to say, you know, a big thanks to Lorimer Moseley, and Adrian Lowe, who both of them were kind enough to agree to read through my pain education content and give me feedback and consultations and edits, which was like, so kind, and they didn’t even charge me anything. And I offered to pay them both. And I wish they had taken my money. But yeah, I wanted them to vet the content. So there’s this pain education piece, and then it’s a series of chapters of tools. So, you know, again, affordable, accessible care isn’t just, by the way, here’s how pain works. It’s now what can I do about it? So I wanted to make sure that I was offering, like a tool belt of options for healthcare providers to offer their patients like here are 17 different pain management strategies that have evidence of effectiveness that come straight out of the literature, you know, pick a few that work for you, whether it’s mindfulness or using guided imagery, or, you know, cognitive strategies, or, you know, sleep hygiene and nutritional tips, like, how do we put this all together to create a unique pain management plan for each one of our unique patients who walk through our door with a unique profile of suffering. So that’s how that happened. And I should also say that the book almost did not happen, because my deadline was in 2020, which, as everyone knows, was a shit show of the year. My, my bandwidth was zero, I would sit down to edit, you know, my lovely publishers would send me a couple of chapters, and they’d say, here are some edits, go ahead and make some changes. And I like, couldn’t even read through the work I had written, I like my brain just was on overdrive. And I was trying to process what it meant that we were in the middle of a global pandemic. And I sent them an email, and I was like, you guys, I don’t think I can do it. So the book almost didn’t happen. But in December, it was actually shockingly painstakingly born. So I’m more proud of it than anything I’ve ever done. I don’t know if anyone will ever read it. But I, I’m very proud of it. So I hope it’s of use to health care providers to people living with pain.
Yeah, absolutely. And is this only for adults.
So the pain management workbook I wrote in language that’s usable for everybody. I mean, it’s not only for adults, it’s. So the book I actually wrote first is called the chronic pain and illness workbook for teens. So it has a lot of similar content, but I wrote it for kids, because there just isn’t anything out there for kids. And there’s even less for health care providers who are working with kids with pain. So this is adapted from that it has like twice as much content, I would say and is expanded content. So the pain management workbook is sort of intended to be for everybody. And the chronic pain and illness workbook for teens is more specifically for kids in the health care providers working with them. But I’ve been told by people who just have that book that they have used it successfully with adult patients, too. So
yeah, so excellent. And where can people find all of this and find you if they want to get in touch with you? They have questions. They want the book, they just want to chat, where can they find you.
So the pain management workbook. And the chronic pain and illness workbook for teens are both on Amazon. And they’re like 20 bucks, which is so much less expensive than around of cognitive behavioral therapy. But I do recommend oftentimes to healthcare providers that they offer the book to their patients, and then offer to go through it with them. Because it’s just so nice to have a pain coach to be going through a treatment protocol with. But of course, it can be used as a self help book, you know, on your own. I
just like love that. I
love the supportive model. So yeah, there are those are on Amazon. And yeah, I have a really dorky website that has a ton of resources on it. It’s just my last name. It’s softness, calm. And there’s a resources page with like, apps and websites and books and podcasts and guided audio and all sorts of stuff for people living with pain and their healthcare providers. And I also joined Twitter during the pandemic, because I don’t know, it seemed like social media was where everybody was, and I couldn’t see any of my friends and I couldn’t go to conferences. I couldn’t have conversations with cool people like you. So I joined Twitter and Twitter, my Twitter handle is at doctors office. That’s been really interesting and fun. It’s been a really interesting platform. That’s I think that’s actually how I found you. And then I’m also on Instagram where I post some pain education content too. And that’s at the real Doc’s off, because I couldn’t think of a better name and I got really nervous because social media makes me nervous. So
well, at least now people know where to find you. How to get in touch with you where to get your book. So this is great. This was a great talk. I you know, I could keep going on and on and on too. about this, I could do like a 10 hour podcast, just on on pain alone. Because it’s something I’m passionate about. And it’s there’s just not enough good information out there for people to access. So hopefully people listening to this will then access some of your resources and education, education education right. Now, before we end, I have one last question for you. And that’s knowing where you are now in your life. And in your career, what advice would you give to your younger self?
What advice would I give to my younger self? Oh, wow, you know, the advice I would give to my younger self is keep doing exactly what you’re doing and follow your gut. And trust your intuition and know that following the path of the thing that you love is the thing that’s going to bring you to the place you need to be professionally. Like, I wanted to live at the intersection of medicine and psychology, and education and science writing. And I couldn’t figure out how to do that. So I had all these different jobs. You know, I was like, a science teacher at the Wildlife Conservation Society. And I was a science writer at a Science Magazine, and I worked at the NYU child Study Center, and I got a PhD and I just couldn’t, but but I think, you know, organically what happened over time, just from following my passion, my like, actual passion is that I was able to do all these things. So now I have a private practice. And I’m seeing patients, and I’m writing books. And I have a column in Psychology Today called pain explained where I do a lot of science writing about pain, and I’m teaching pain education at Dartmouth, and at UCSF, which I deeply, deeply love because I get to connect with physicians and other health care providers. And, you know, it’s just sort of the it is sort of naturally and organically, exactly what I feel like I was called to do you put it out, you put it out into the universe, and it happened. Yeah, I mean, but not without a lot of trial and tribulation. But I think I would just tell my younger self to trust your gut and trust your instinct and you you actually are on the right path. If you’re doing something that you love, you are on the right path, even if you don’t know
- Excellent advice. Well, Rachel, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and chatting today. I really appreciate it and I appreciate you. So thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Absolutely. And everyone. Thank you so much for listening, have a great couple of days and stay healthy, wealthy and smart.