Are you a GP who sees people suffering chronic pain?
The answer is most likely yes considering 20% of the population suffer chronic pain. There are many presentations (in no particular order): back pain, neck pain, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, arthritis, post-injury, headaches, migraines, pelvic pain, endometriosis, menstrual pain, tendonitis, as a feature of a particular condition, cancer, heart disease and more.
Chronic pain is the No1 global health burden. Pain is the main reason why people seek help. Yet it remains poorly understood, meaning that people’s expectations are out of step with what they need to get better, and the treatment offered can take them down the wrong path. Together these contribute to the on-going problem that is showing no signs of change in the right direction: less suffering and less cost. We must and can make this happen. The ‘we’ being society.
GPs are in a prime position to help drive this change with the right support and systems in place. As a GP or healthcare clinician, how do you feel when a patient (person) suffering chronic pain comes into your room? Be honest. Does the challenge excite you, or is it the so-called ‘heart-sink’ time? For me, I have always loved the challenge and the fact that we can always do something to help the person improve their life. But this is because I have always felt that I can work in this specialist field and make a difference, building knowledge and experience over 20 years. Without the practical knowledge and the coaching approach, I am certain I would feel lost and overwhelmed.
Now, I do not believe that you need 20 years in the world of pain to be able to have a positive impact. But I do know that understanding pain is vital, as is having confidence in your approach. Both are transmitted to the person in front of you whether you are aware or not.
Steps to take
The first step is to be aware of your own beliefs, biases and behaviours in these situations. These will frame your approach. What is your approach? Establishing the way you ‘treat’ is the next step. Do you treat chronic pain? Do you treat the person? Do you coach the person? What do you do, how and why?
On knowing your start point, you can then build your knowledge of pain: what is pain really? For example, understanding that pain and injury are poorly related, that pain and tissue state bear little relation to each other, that pain is a need state, and that pain is the brain’s best guess to explain the current state. Further, you learn that pain is related to the perception of threat and the state of the person. It is of course the person who suffers pain, not the body part. And, most of the biology in the dark when we are in pain, is not actually where we feel it. The pain experience itself is just the tip of the iceberg.
You have a choice. You can continue using the same approach, and indeed there may well be some ways that you find to be effective. Or you can add to your repertoire of tools and design a system or process. This I can help you create.
One of the biggest challenges is always the time factor. Perhaps you have 7 minutes, 10 minutes or the ‘luxury’ or more. It is tight. This is a complex situation that requires time and the human touch. How can effective care be achieved? How can we really help this person improve their life? The primary choice remains medication. There is a role for medication and it is often expected by the person and hence a pressure to prescribe exists. However, whether you do or not is your choice as the clinician. But of course medication does not teach someone how to improve their life and will mean that the natural systems of (biological) protection become lazy together with a limitation upon the person’s responses. People commonly rely upon and hope for the quick fix option when there is none. Instead there is a way forward that eases suffering and improves life, but it takes longer and is more effort. That is the reality, the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth about chronic pain.
To address pain you have to address your needs in life, build wellness, create new heathy habits, take a new perspective, expect and know that life can get better and practice day to day to day, much like cleaning your teeth — you know this is true when you truly understand pain.
The questions are: what does this person really need? What are they telling you in the narrative? And then, how good are my deep listening skills?
So, with limited time and the desire to make a positive impact, we need a plan. One that we can roll out in an individual way. We need a set of options and resources that can meet the needs of the person step by step. When you know that you have a plan, the pressure eases because you know that you can make a positive impact. You outline the plan to the patient, start the wheels turning as you help them understand their pain (always the key), and focus on what they CAN do to improve their life.
The Pain Coach approach focuses upon what the person wants in their life and how they want their life to be: focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. See how often we do the latter, and sure enough…. . This is why coaching offers so much because we tap into the person’s strengths to move on towards their picture of success. We have a clear direction and steps to take each day. It is a challenge, but coaching encourages and supports the person to live their best life, to show up in the best version of themselves, and to reach their potential.
What would it be like if you had a process?
How would you feel about supporting, encouraging and coaching people suffering chronic pain if you knew that you had a process in place? Would this have a positive impact upon their lives? Your practice? Your stress levels? Costs?
Your process includes a range of ways that you address particular problems that arise together with resources to call upon. Within each session you have 1-2 key points to cover. Sessions are scheduled according to the priorities for that person. This removes some of the time pressure because instead of trying to cram in as much as possible, or prescribing as the first port of call, you know that you have a number of appointments set up for particular issues to be discussed and acted upon.
In essence, when a person has an idea about what is happening, why, what they must do, what the clinician will do and over a rough time period, they will be satisfied and engage. The trusted advisor status is vital when working with someone suffering chronic pain. This takes time and follows reliable, compassionate care, i.e./ positive actions in line with the person’s needs.
There are many pressures upon GPs. From society, patients, and themselves to deliver the best care. Resources are always limited in some shape or form, in particular the most valuable one: time. This being the case, we must work out the best ways of moving forward. For chronic pain, currently the greatest health burden, creating a process within your practice that enables you to listen (deeply) to the patient, and step by step meet their needs will increase efficiency and improve outcomes. Within this process, pain coaching is a means of working with the person so that they can reach their potential.