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Common Pain Myths and Misconceptions

Wendy Magnoli

By Wendy Magnoli, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Dean Stroud Spine and Pain Institute at Shepherd Center

We've seen tremendous progress in pain and its management over the past several years. However, there are still a lot of myths and misconceptions out there. Here are the top 10 myths I hear most frequently.  

1. If you cannot find the exact cause of your pain, then it must be in your head.

Many pain syndromes are not correlated with findings on any medical tests or scans. Just because the cause of your pain does not show up on tests, this does not mean that your pain is not “real.” Many patients with chronic back pain have no significant findings on MRI scans. The opposite is also true – many individuals who have significant findings on MRI imaging report no problems with back pain.

2. Chronic pain isn’t that bad because you get used to it after a while.

Chronic pain always hurts. Yes, you may get used to it, modify your life around the pain, and learn to function with it, but it still hurts.

3. If you take opiates, you must be or will be an addict.

Most people who take opiates for an extended period develop a chemical dependence on the medication and can go into withdrawals if the medication is suddenly stopped. This, however, is NOT addiction. Addiction is a condition characterized by cravings and misuse of the medication to get a “high” or attempt to relieve negative emotions such as depression or anxiety.

4. Chronic pain is forever.

Chronic pain is not necessarily an incurable disease. If a chronic pain condition has been present for years, it is unlikely that a doctor will be able to fix it in just a few visits. Still, it may be possible to diminish or even eliminate chronic pain with persistence and teamwork.

5. Living with chronic pain eliminates the possibility of a fulfilling life.

While chronic pain can significantly impact daily life, it does not mean life must be spent in isolation or without joy. Although some modifications may be necessary, an individual with chronic pain can continue to live a fulfilling life consistent with their values.

6. Chronic pain is an inevitable part of growing older.

Although a few aches and pains are to be expected as we get older, a generally healthy person should not expect to wake up every day with chronic pain. Chronic pain is not inevitable, and thinking that it is may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

7. The best treatment for chronic pain is bed rest.

Prolonged inactivity can actually make chronic pain worse through deconditioning. It is important to stay physically active without overdoing it. Talk to your doctor and/or physical therapist to determine the right balance for you.

8. Weather has no impact on “real” pain.

Changes in weather can affect pain levels related to joint pain, and barometric pressure changes can affect headache pain. Depending on the type of pain, extreme heat or cold can also impact pain levels.

9. Alternative treatments are ineffective.

Many alternative treatment modalities (such as acupuncture, essential oils, massage, herbal supplements, etc.) can be excellent additions to a more traditional treatment plan. Check with your treating physician to ensure that any alternative treatment you are considering is safe and will not interfere with your current treatment plan.

10. If a person has “real” physical pain, then psychological treatment is not needed.

People with chronic pain face many challenges and stressors related to their medical struggles and life changes and may experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. Since chronic pain can impact every aspect of life, supportive therapy for dealing with these issues can be very helpful. Pain psychology can also help people with chronic pain learn new skills (such as relaxation techniques) that can be helpful in the self-management of pain.

About Dr. Magnoli
Wendy Magnoli, Ph.D., is a psychologist for the Dean Stroud Spine and Pain Institute outpatient clinic. She received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Auburn University and completed her internship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. Dr. Magnoli has specialized training and experience in pain psychology as well as other areas of health psychology. She is a certified clinical trauma professional with years of experience treating individuals with both acute and chronic trauma histories. She is especially interested in the association between trauma and chronic pain.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.