UC researcher studying chronic pain

16 April 2015

A University of Canterbury researcher who graduates with her PhD this week has been examining how one in six New Zealanders live with chronic pain.

A University of Canterbury researcher who graduates with her PhD this week has been examining how one in six New Zealanders live with chronic pain.

While many people think all pain can be treated successfully, for every four people being treated with chronic pain, only one is likely to get pain relief and they may only be able to reduce their pain by 50 percent.

Dr Bronnie Thompson’s work at the University’s School of Health Sciences was supervised by Professor Ray Kirk and Dr Jeff Gage. She says despite the glum figures for treating chronic pain, about 30 percent of those people cope well and don't seek treatment.

“This group of people don't get studied often, possibly because they just get on with life and we don't see them, or maybe because they're not the people costing our health system. Consequently, we don't know very much about how or why they do so well.

“This means when we're developing treatments for people who can't otherwise get pain relief, we don't know very much about what is working well in daily life for people who are successfully coping. I studied this group of people and found that when people first develop pain, life becomes incoherent and chaotic and nothing makes sense any more.

“They seek to make sense of their pain, their diagnosis and what is important in life. They focus on their work or activities so life has purpose and meaning. With the support of a clinician, and when they have a strong drive to work and have activities, people begin to get on with their lives so that they can look to a new future.

“What's important about my research is that it shows us something about the process of adapting to a common problem. It's not about being a special kind of person. It's about being passionate about something that expresses important parts of self-concept and having the support to do this.

“Many people don't benefit from drugs, surgery and other treatments, but there are ways for people to take control of their lives and do what's important to them. If they're prepared to change the way they do things they can develop effective coping strategies.”

Dr Thompson says in an aging society where pain from osteoarthritis and other chronic conditions is increasing, helping people identify what motivates them and makes them feel better is something the New Zealand health system could benefit from.

She presented her research at the recent Pain Science in Motion Colloquium in Brussels, Belgium, where she won first prize for her abstract. Dr Thompson provides pain management advice in private practice under her Healthskills banner and from her blog www.healthskills.co.nz.

Dr Thompson is one of 1200 University of Canterbury students who are graduating this week.

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University of Canterbury
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