Coaching Away Chronic Pain

Coaching Away Chronic Pain

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?

Becky Curtis

Becky Curtis

“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.”

Authored by: Pat Anson, Editor

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Marg W.

Kevin , Tracy, & MarkM, I feel the same way you do (sort of). While “positive thinking” and using learning new things as a “distraction technique” DOES help, it’s meant to be PART of our “toolbox” of treatments/techniques we can go to. In my opinion (having had chronic pain for 10+ years), NOTHING, no ONE thing will lower our pain to a satisfactory (subjective) level. Just as medication alone will not work or heat/ice will not work BY THEMSELVES. Pain management is a collaborative “art”. Some doctors are better than others at it and some patients are even better than their own doctors at coming up with new/innovative treatments to put in that toolbox! I compare pain coaching to going to the E.R. with a gunshot wound. Certainly, pain coaching, “positive thinking”, meditation, and biofeedback COMBINED won’t help that patient. But surgery, medication, perhaps acupuncture, prayer, meditation, heat/ice (these are all examples) WILL. Unfortunately, pain nearly always is a result of a physical injury and requires physical intervention….BUT that physical intervention can definitely be enhanced by non -physical treatments.

I really enjoyed this article. I feel it represents what we do. We do want to maintain the distinction between coaching and counseling and noticed the term counseling was used in the article. We would suggest the word coaching be used instead to maintain consistency. Thank you.

Delica Ballenger

To all who say they have a positive attitude and still have pain, at the moment there is no cure for chronic pain. But through coaching and learning coping skills you can change how you experience it. Just getting up out of a chair can land me in the hospital, chronic pain it is real. But it can be un-learned so as not to have such a devestating impact on your daily life. How do I know? I have chronic pain, have gone through the program and am a pain management coach.

This is great, and an appropriate take on the role. My rheumatologist has always referred to himself as my coach. He said his job was to help me find the ways to reach my peak performance, even if we did not have a cure for my condition. He was willing to refer to others if it would help me find ways to function at my best. I’ve always appreciated this and it made a lot of difference in how I managed my illness(es).

As a Coach that works with patients with chronic illness and pain, I have to agree that there are many benefits to working with a coach and learning pain management skills that can improve your quality of life and reduce your need for pain medication, such as yoga breathing techniques, learning the skill of distraction with music or guided imagery and many others. I hesitated however at some of the wording in this article as many patients with chronic pain feel judged by suggestions that they are not doing enough. These skills really do work however every patient is different and at a different place in their journey that is why working with a coach such as Becky Curtis makes such a difference because it is a process and not just doing a bunch of things that will magically make the pain go away. My experience has been that these pain management skills manage pain not eliminate it completely. When pain becomes chronic it is processed differently in the brain than acute pain however it is still very real. If my response is out of line please delete.

While I agree with Kevin and Tracy I agree only to a point. Yes, when my pain reaches those levels nothing really works at bringing the pain down to a tolerable range at the very moment(s) of pain. However, in a holistic picture, many of the things Mr. Anson reports here do have a positive impact upon the person in pain in the long run, particularly in the realms of hope & existential isolation. I’m not suggesting that these reported techniques will end our pain as it has for a very fortunate subset, but it can and does lead to a better quality of life even in the face of relentless misery. I found, for example, that reaching out to others, even within the very limits imposed by my pain, I found a new and increasing resiliency, hopefulness and a better platform on which to brace myself for a gathering storm of hateful pain. Did my pain disappear, become nominally better? No. But you can imagine what did improve in me: hope, decreased despair, humor, a view beyond my solipsistic existence and a significant reduction in my existential loneliness and despair. Each of these things and more contributed to the misery of pain. Reaching out to others, even if it is simply a brief email to a fellow traveler cracks the shell of loneliness while, in a small but significant way repairs our social networks that take a real beating at the hands of mindless pain.

Thanks for the article, Pat. As I’ve been able to reach out to others through my columns here the pain in my body has slowly receded, I’m working on opening a very small private practice here in my hometown of Chicago where I intend to work as a psychotherapist/coach with fellow travelers on the trail of remorseless agony. As I’m getting older I’d like to use these last years of my work life to helping others find hope, love, resilience and meaning in their lives. The National Pain Report is a significant place to begin reaching beyond the limits of despair.

kevin gk

This may be true for someone that has a set pain level. I have pain while sitting and/or standing that cranks to a 9 pain level in 30 minutes. There are not any self hypnoses, mindfulness, or thinking positive thoughts that can stop this. I have been through the programs. When the body starts shaking due to the high pain level, there is not much that will help.

dr sandra

you start leading a pain free life once you take on Pran Yantra or tesla purple positive energy plates.These are based on colours,sounds and vibrations and these purple plates provide relief within 15 minutes or so.These are developed in USA, Switzerland and India only.

Tracy Jones

I am wondering if you are saying that the pain I have from RSD is not as bad if I have a great outlook because I do stuff to help me keep my mind off my pain but when I never know day to day how I feel I can’t see how I am making my pain worse when you touch my arm and I react by pulling my arm away I agree we need to be positive but being positive doesn’t take my pain away I could not get up without taking my pain medicine so having a great attitude helps but not sure if this would be a cure all for some chronic pain diseases