Does Pain Empathy Increase Disability in People with Chronic Pain?

People who experience chronic pain often require emotional and physical support. Many pain clients need assistance completing activities of daily living and require help tending to ordinary tasks. Some individuals with chronic pain are unable to stay employed due to their impairments. However, many people who live with chronic pain maintain a relatively normal quality of life. They find ways to adaptively cope with their pain and can still function in their professional and personal lives with little physical or emotional support.

The Pain Response Preference Questionnaire (PRPQ) is a tool that is used to determine how social response to pain affects the pain and subsequent disability of a pain client. There are many different factors considered in the PRPQ. But in a recent study conducted by Lachlan A. McWilliams of the Department of Psychology at Acadia University in Canada, the primary goal was to assess how solicitous support affected the disability and pain of clients analyzed. McWilliams evaluated 300 clients with chronic pain using self-reports and investigated their levels of pain severity, coping methods, and disability.

The study revealed that the individuals with the highest levels of solicitous support reported the most severe pain symptoms. These same participants reported the highest levels of disability from their pain. In contrast, the participants who reported high levels of suppression and activity had the lowest levels of disability. This suggests that the individuals who seek support for their pain may even exacerbate their symptoms in order to elicit the support. The support sought by the solicitous group was in the form of physical and emotional assistance and caused the participants to cope in negative ways resulting in further disability. The individuals that suppressed their discomfort and were encouraged to continue their normal activities demonstrated the highest levels of emotional and physical functioning. In sum, McWilliams believes that the PRPQ showed that individuals high in solicitous support had negative outcomes with respect to chronic pain. McWilliams added, “Notwithstanding the need for such research, the pattern of associations between the PRPQ scales and measures of agency, communion, and coping support the validity of the current PRPQ scales.”

McWilliams, L. A., Bailey, K., Dick, B. D., Verrier, M. J., Kowal, J. (2012). A psychometric evaluation of the pain response preference questionnaire in a chronic pain patient sample. Health Psychology 31.3, 343-351.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Alice

    July 3rd, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    Haven’t we all met someone like that, who almost seems to want us to revel in their pain and misery right along with them? I feel so bad because I want to feel sympathy for them but at the same time I wish they could find something else to talk about. I kind of have a feeling that these sre the people who are always glass is half empty kind of folks. They can never see the positive in any situation, they are always looking for the negative, and this is how they go through their lives. I know that many of them do have chronic pain and it is hard for most of us who have not experienced that to even begin to understand how they feel. For the most part though I think that I would be able to lend more support and have a greater understanding of what it is like if they didn’t talk about it all the time! Now when I hear them talk on and on about it I simply tune out and learn nothing.

  • Jeannie A

    July 3rd, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    Do you really think that these patients want to hurt? Nobody wants to hurt and deal with the kind of pain that they do. I don’t see it as they are seeking sympathy, but that maybe they are lonely and need somebody to talk to. Is that too much to ask, for us to give just a little bit of our time to someone who hurts and needs to talk?

  • linda.s

    July 3rd, 2012 at 4:13 PM

    its not right to think anybody suffering from chronic pain would ‘seek’ attention.and there is nothing wrong about those who do.whenever there is something wrong we look for help and support from family and friends then why is it wrong if folks with chronic pain do that?

    but I’m surprised at the results of this study as much as anyone of you is and I just hope we are able to get something in-detail on this,like whether those that saw an increase in symptoms being pessimistic or something.i just hope the results are not uniform for all people.

  • capers

    July 4th, 2012 at 4:34 AM

    Those who can just put this kind of pain behind them and soldier on are so brave. I can’t imagine hurting like this all the time and still have people not believe me when I talk about it.

  • Judith Wilson Burkes

    July 4th, 2012 at 5:39 AM

    This study puts pain management back 100 years. Suppress your discomfort(suck it up!) and continue your normal activities (ignore it and push through) landed me in a wheelchair (with spinal stenosis), and nearly took the life of my partner, who tried to work through Hodgkins Lymphoma.

    I think we know the difference between someone who uses their condition to whine, complain and is attention-seeking, and true sufferers who need pain management, and seek out remedies to restore their quality of life.

    I hope this study is used in any way to create pain management policies.

  • Judith Wilson Burkes

    July 4th, 2012 at 5:41 AM

    I hope this study is NOT used in any way to create pain management policies. Sorry for the typo.

  • Nell

    July 5th, 2012 at 4:23 AM

    I think that the thing that bothers so many of us who have had to live with another facing chronic pain is the fact that taking care of them can be exhausting for us too.
    That is not to say that in any way we feel like you are faking or that you could just be able to let g of the pain. But rather I think that the hardest part is that for some it is hard to pinpoint where the pain is coming from or what causes it.
    I think that we are just a society who always wants answers, and when someone is dealing with this then there is often no definitive answer.

  • P.Walters

    July 5th, 2012 at 9:04 AM

    I think people who do receive empathy end up hearing things that make them cook up negative thoughts in their mind.

    If you have a problem and go about telling everybody about it and expect a discount in things then you are bound to feel down!

    There are ways to cope with things such as these in a positive manner and that needs some learning.

  • Bob Palmer

    November 1st, 2012 at 8:49 AM

    This study is very exciting! It shows that when you get stuck in an ongoing, empathetic response with a person in pain, it does them no good. But most therapists and educators know how important empathy is as a tool to build rapport, to engage and, then, to move forward. Should we discard empathy, NO. Should we continually use it as a starting point to move the person out of their misery, YES! It is what any good leader, coach, entertainer or therapist does. Simply getting a person to talk about a time of happiness in their life will shift that person. As does smiling.

  • rebecca

    November 22nd, 2014 at 1:18 AM

    Without reading the entire research paper and methods used it is hard to know exactly how the researchers came to these conclusions. What stands out is the assumption that someone who is unable to “suppress their pain” is compared to someone who can suppress their pain as though their pain is equivalent and comparable. This assumes the personal response as the variable and the pain as the constant. This is nonsense. Pain is highly subjective and there is nothing to suggest that people are less able to suppress their pain simply because they are experiencing higher pain levels than someone who can continue with normal activities. Clearly ones determination to try and ignore pain is going to have a big impact, but so is the subject level of pain, there is pain you can ignore and pain you cannot ignore – everyone knows that from personal experience. I believe that empathy is crucial in healthy management of pain even more so if the physiological cause of pain is degenerative. Lack of empathy and support from those around will only encourage people to abuse their bodies in order to remain “acceptable” in society and lead to worsening of their health. I hope that we are moving towards a healthy and supportive way of managing pain which explores the roles of positive psychology whilst actually acknowledging peoples subjective experiences rather than the more convenient idea that we can just ignore the experience of body.

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