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Psychology Plays Important Role in Chronic Pain Management

By Urszula Klich, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist, Shepherd Pain Institute

Anyone who has ever experienced pain knows they have an immediate emotional reaction to it. People who struggle with chronic pain deal with the discomfort of the sensations, as well as the many ways pain affects their lives.

Pain often prevents people from coping with stress in ways they may have been able to before the pain. In this way, pain becomes a double-whammy. For example, when you can no longer exercise or easily get out with friends to socialize or engage in other activities, you are less able to deal with normal life stress, let alone the added burden of pain. 

We know that mood plays an important role in the management of pain. Fortunately, it can be modified, not only with medication and psychotherapy, but also with techniques such as meditation. 

In fact, well-known neuroscientist Richie Davidson, who has researched meditation for decades, describes emotions, such as happiness, as motor skills that can be trained. At Shepherd Pain Institute, we build on that premise when we incorporate what is called mindfulness-based meditation into our pain management program. Based on my work with individuals with complex medical conditions, I developed the Mindfulness-Based Biofeedback Program. 

Biofeedback training helps people develop skills to identify and change their bodily responses to stress and pain. We use noninvasive equipment to measure the body’s physiological responses. For example, at the Shepherd Pain Institute, we measure heart rate, respiration, muscle tension and peripheral hand temperature, an indirect measure of blood flow. Once we make baseline recordings, individuals can use the information to make changes that bring their body back to a state of balance. Through feedback, people learn how to make incremental adjustments to work toward a new set point. 

The meditation component of the treatment helps people accept “what is in each moment” without reactions that often aggravate the situation. Clinical observations and patient reports have shown positive shifts in wellbeing, happiness and contentment as a result of meditation. Through advances in research, we have been able to confirm what we have been seeing clinically (Holzel, 2011). Evidence now shows that these changes are associated with structural alterations in the brain as observed on MRI in people who meditate (Desbordes, et al., 2012). This news is particularly exciting as we learn of the more-longstanding improvements that are possible in the wellbeing and quality of life for people struggling with physical and emotional pain.  

A comprehensive review of published research reveals that psychologists play a primary role in the treatment of chronic pain (Jensen & Turk, 2014; Gatche, McGeary, McGeary, & Lippe, 2014). It is not hard to understand why this is the case as we imagine the mental suffering that can go along with pain. With our Mindfulness-Based Biofeedback Program, we have seen that balanced bodies and minds help people release habits that might be inadvertently adding to the pain, and make it easier to manage pain that simply won’t go away.

I advise anyone who is struggling with pain to talk to their physician about a comprehensive treatment program.   

For more information on Shepherd Pain Institute, see


Desbordes, G., Negi, L. T., Pace, T. W. W., Wallace, B. A., Raison, C. L., & Schwartz, E. L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6, 292. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292

Gatchel, R. J., McGeary, D. D., McGeary, C. A., & Lippe, B. (2014). Interdisciplinary chronic   pain management: Past, present, and future. American Psychologist69(2), 119.

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research, 191(1), 36–43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns. 2010.08.006

Jensen, M. P., & Turk, D. C. (2014). Contributions of psychology to the understanding and         treatment of people with chronic pain: Why it matters to ALL psychologists. American Psychologist69(2), 105.


URSZULA KLICH, PH.D., has nearly 20 years of clinical experience in the area of health psychology. She has developed specialized pain management techniques, such as Mindfulness-Based Biofeedback. Dr. Klich is committed to helping people bridge the gap between their current way of living and their potential. Through her extensive work with people dealing with complex medical problems, she has cultivated a treatment philosophy that fosters each individual’s healing power to improve physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Dr. Klich believes all people have the ability to improve their wellbeing by tapping into their natural healing power.

To learn more about the science and everyday application of mindfulness and self-awareness through Mindfulness-Based Biofeedback, visit Dr. Klich’s website at and follow MyMindfulWayofLife on Facebook or Twitter @Urszulaklich.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neurological conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.