Emotional Toll & Finding Relief For Chronic Pain with Dr. Karl Sperber, Clinical Psychologist
Last updated: August 2021
Chronic pain is generally considered any pain that lasts for more than three months. If a person is experiencing pain for a long period of time under the care of their current healthcare providers, it may be time to consult with a psychologist that specializes in chronic pain.
Psychologists are experts in helping people cope with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that accompany chronic pain, like the pain from PsA.
Let's talk about the impact of chronic pain
Dr. Karl Sperber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Syracuse, NY. In his practice, he works with those experiencing chronic pain using multiple methods, including interventional and pharmacologic treatments as well as a physical therapy program.
We reached out on our Psoriatic-Arthritis.com Facebook page to ask our community members what questions they have for a chronic pain psychologist. Many of you mentioned wanting to learn more about managing chronic pain and tips for impactful ways to find relief. Dr. Sperber was kind enough to answer some of these questions.
For our readers’ knowledge, share your background and experience working with individuals with chronic conditions.
“Well, I’m kind of an old-timer. I’ve been doing psychotherapy of one kind or another for over 35 years and very early on, I got into things like meditation and guided imagery, stress management, that kind of stuff. Later in my career, when I got referrals from my clients who had chronic pain conditions, it turned out that those things were quite useful.
I became one of the contracted providers with the New York State worker’s compensation system. As you can imagine, that’s specifically for people who were hurt on the job by some kind of accident. Many, or at least the people who came to me, have spinal injuries and often had exhausted all the medical options, so they were looking for ways to – you might say – live better with the chronic pain or in spite of the chronic pain.
Over that time, I’ve worked generally with all kinds of people with distress ranging from anxiety to depression, occasionally the more severe mental illness. I’ve worked with children and families as well as adults.”
How can we raise awareness of the importance of mental health in chronic pain communities? Please share how a mental health professional can improve the lives of those with chronic conditions.
“For me, that’s kind of a tough question. People have to have places where they can share what they’re going through. It sounds to me like this is precisely what you’re providing and what you want to expand on. In pain management, we talk about the invisible conditions, the things that don’t have an obvious sign, like if you don’t walk with crutches or you’re not in a wheelchair you appear to be normal to the casual observer.That can often add extra difficulty because some people will be skeptical.
So it’s the process that I’ve often tried to help people with is choosing carefully who you talk to and how you talk about your condition, but that seems to me to be the most important thing. There are lots of similarities in the life challenges a chronic condition will force on a person. Whether it’s a spinal injury or an autoimmune disease or whatever it is. There are commonalities on what makes that psychological effect that makes it difficult to cope with.”
For people who don’t have the resources or income to meet with a mental health professional, do you have any resources or advice on living with the emotional effects of a chronic health condition?
"Social support is really really critical and obviously I’m sure many of the people on psoriatic-arthritis.com have run into the problem - that it’s possible to sort of wear out friendships or relationships with family if you’re living with chronic pain. Online communities are really important.
Another thing I would advocate for strongly is a practice of meditation of some form. This is something that costs nothing at all. It takes no special equipment or anything. There are plenty of online instructions available now for meditation. It’s not hard to learn how to do meditation, but it can be really challenging to stick with it. But I can’t stress enough that there are some ways in which the practice of meditation can really benefit people with chronic pain.
There’s plenty of other things, qigong, kind of like tai chi, but a Chinese system of exercise that is very gentle exercises that are flowing almost like very gentle dance movements. It can be a meditation. Any physical activity, I know it varies in terms of what people may be able to do, but any kind of physical activity, no matter how mild it is, can have benefits in terms of stress and mood relief.
Stress and depression exacerbate pain. It makes the suffering people experience from physical disorders multiplied, so anything that’s a stress reliever, anything that is genuinely relaxing can be usually helpful and some of these things don’t cost much.”
More insight from Dr. Sperber
Having a painful condition is stressful. Unfortunately, stress can contribute to a range of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and anxiety. Managing your emotions can directly affect the intensity of your pain.
Psychologists can help you manage the stresses in your life related to your chronic pain. If you're interested in learning more about our conversation with Dr. Sperber, please check out these additional articles:
Preparing for a visit with a psychologist
When working with a psychologist, you can expect to discuss your physical and emotional health. The psychologist will ask about the pain you experience, where and when it occurs, and what factors may affect it. In addition, he or she will likely ask you to discuss any worries or stresses, including those related to your pain.
What questions would you like to ask a chronic pain psychologist about coping through the many challenges of PsA? Is therapy a part of your treatment journey? Awareness can validate many others. Please share in the comments below.
Do you have any questions about PsA?