Professional athletes have coaches. So do actors, business people and investors. Even England’s King George VI had a coach – a voice coach who taught him how to overcome his fear of public speaking.
But should people in chronic pain have coaches?
“Most of them are in a really dark place, a really sad place,” says Becky Curtis, who knows from personal experience what that dark place is like. In 2005, she was left partially paralyzed and in chronic pain after a car accident on a remote Montana road nearly killed her.
“I went to a pain clinic, where I learned there were some really good positive things that I could do to affect my experience of pain. Not have done to me, but to do. By the time I was six months out from the pain clinic I was able to get off my medications. And it was from there I wanted to spend the rest of my life helping people with chronic pain.”
Curtis is a pioneer in the nascent field of chronic pain coaching. In 2008, she founded Take Courage Coaching in Bozeman, Montana, where she counsels, advises and motivates pain patients around the country. Weekly counseling sessions by phone helps clients end the isolation and self-doubt that often exacerbates their pain.
“Health care providers have their place and the physical therapists have their place, but there is a place for coaching. And the place for coaching is to help provide the support that these people need, the accountability, the encouragement, the vision that they need to help them move forward,” says Curtis.
The key, she says, is for clients to “unlearn” their pain and to focus on positive things.
“Pain is learned. We learn pain like we learn to ride a bike,” says Curtis, emphasizing that she doesn’t mean anyone’s pain is “all in their head.”
But it does take root there.
“Pain is all processed in the head. And the longer we have pain, pain is very loud, so we focus on pain. The more we focus on something, the more it develops in the brain. So going to a doctor once every three months and have them make suggestions, that isn’t always the most helpful thing. But a coach can help provide the support that they need.”
After a year of counseling, Curtis says many clients return to work, having learned how to manage their pain through distraction and coping techniques.
About 75% of them no longer take opioid pain medicines.
“I have hopes of making that number 100%. Our brains have the ability to do way more than the medications that we take,” says Curtis, citing studies that show natural opioids produced by the brain are 60 times more powerful than pain medications.
“Becky is classic case. When she was on opioids, she wasn’t plugged in,” says Barry Curtis, Becky’s husband. “A lot of what it takes to manage pain is clear mindedness, clear thinking and a mental ability to focus on something else. One of the problems with opioids is that they mess up your focus.”
In addition to counseling patients, Curtis also lectures and speaks to health care providers. Her message to doctors at PAINWeek, a recent health care conference in Las Vegas, is that they need to change their vocabulary and be more positive.
“One doctor, when I asked him what my prognosis was, he said, ‘You’ll never be normal.’ And that made me really sad and I cried and it was really difficult. The next day I asked my other doctor what is my prognosis and he says, ‘You’ll walk again.’”
“They were both true. Both of those things are true,” says Curtis. “I’m not normal, whatever normal is. And that’s what I tell my clients. Normal is just a setting on your dryer. So try to find positive ways to reframe things for people. There are always things in our lives that are still going well.”