In the United Sates, 2000-2010 was labeled the “decade of pain.” In 2011, the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care and Education stated that the prevalence of chronic pain in our country exceeded the prevalence of diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined.
Unfortunately, this prevalence of pain has continued, and because of that, counselors need to be aware that substance dependence and pain management may be an issue for their clients — even if it is not a “problem” as presented by clients themselves. Clients may be particularly vulnerable to substance dependence specific to opioids because they (or others in their lives) may view these drugs as the best treatment for pain (i.e., a “quick fix”).
There is a great deal to know about substance dependence and pain management. Because of this, counselors can easily become overwhelmed and hesitate to work with these issues. I am writing this article to help counselors see that they can readily integrate some basic substance dependence and pain management approaches into their current counseling practices and still be practicing within their area of competence.
Because of the prevalence of substance dependence and pain management in the United States, it would serve counselors well to always “wear the lenses” of both of these areas as they assess and treat their clients. However, it is probably most important for counselors who are working with clients specifically on either one of these two areas (substance dependence or pain management) to also intentionally explore the area not presented as a problem so that the potential relationship between the two is examined. For example, when counseling someone who struggles with chronic pain, a counselor would be well advised to also ask about their substance use. The same exploration needs to happen when a client struggles with substance dependence; a counselor should ask about any issues with pain and its management.
While this exploration is important, it is also imperative for counselors to be able to readily fuse these “lenses” into their existing clinical approaches. Five suggestions on the general process of incorporating these two perspectives follow.
First, counselors need to accept the reality that there is a lot to know about substance dependence and pain management and make sure that they work within their area of competence. One method for exploring and addressing these areas with their clients (while still practicing in their area of competence) is to use the “HOW” approach. This acronym encourages counselors to be honest, open and willing to discuss substance dependence and pain management issues with their clients. For example, a counselor can be honest about not knowing much about the client’s experience of pain, be open to being educated about the client’s perspective and be willing to discuss the pain experience with the client.
Second, counselors can anchor their approach in the discussion with respect for and genuineness toward the client. This client-centered approach inherently invites the client’s story of their pain (including the ways they try to handle the pain, such as opiates).
Third, counselors can assess and treat the pain using their typical counseling approaches and continue reassessment throughout the treatment process. Counselors should operate as gatherers of information about the pain and, as appropriate, consult with others (e.g., mentors, supervisors, colleagues, medical professionals) concerning appropriate ways to address the pain.
Fourth, counselors need to be aware of countertransference related to their own and their loved ones’ experiences with pain management and substance dependence. An awareness of their countertransference can enhance counselors’ effectiveness in addressing these overlapping areas.
Finally, counselors need to work within the realistic resource limitations that both they and their clients experience. For example, both counselors and their clients have limitations on the amount of time, energy and money they can invest in learning about and addressing the issues of substance dependence and pain management. Maintaining such a realistic perspective can cultivate more humane and practical counseling interventions that will result in less frustration for both the counselor and client.
An overview of chronic pain
In 2011, as stated previously, the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care and Education reported that chronic pain exceeded the combination of diabetes, heart disease and cancer in terms of prevalence in the United States. These historical statistics, in which the current issues of substance abuse and pain management are anchored, underscore the likelihood that many of our counseling clients are experiencing chronic pain but have not mentioned it or its impact on their lives in session. This prevalence should serve as an invitation for counselors to discuss pain and pain management with their clients.
In 2019, Beth Darnall, a pain scientist and director of the Stanford Pain Relief Innovations Lab, summarized the following information on chronic pain in her book Psychological Treatment for Patients With Chronic Pain. By definition, chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than three months or that extends beyond the expected time it should take to heal. Breakthrough pain is an acute version of chronic pain and centers on days or times when the pain is worse.
Although Darnall called chronic pain a “harm alarm” that tells the person to escape the pain to survive, she said the “riddle of chronic pain” is that it is impossible to escape. This knowledge needs to be fused into the perspective of how the pain experience is affecting our counseling clients in a biopsychosocial manner. This biopsychosocial exploration of the relationship between the overlapping areas of substance abuse and pain management can be facilitated by the core suggestions presented in the following section.
I offer seven core suggestions that counselors can use as a guide in addressing substance dependence and pain management from a biopsychosocial perspective.
1) Work out of a systems perspective. From this perspective, the counselor looks at the systemic interactions that result separately for addiction and pain, as well as their overlap systemically. This means that the counselor is aware of the internal and external contributing factors for both addiction and pain and that the client may have developed an addiction in response to their pain or vice versa. The addiction may have resulted from prescribed medication following surgery, or the pain may have resulted from an accident that occurred while the client was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
2) Watch for prescribed and nonprescribed substance use. This suggestion means that the counselor obtains information from the client about any prescribed medication of substances (such as medication-assisted treatment) in response to their pain or substance dependence as well as the client’s nonprescribed usage of opiates and marijuana for pain. Such an inclusive gathering of information provides the counselor with a broader view of the client’s treatment responses to managing the pain.
3) Practice “compassionate accountability.” This phrase means that the counselor has compassion for the client and simultaneously holds the client accountable for their behavior. For example, I can have compassion that my client has an addiction resulting from their use of opiates in response to chronic pain that prevents the client from performing activities of daily living. However, I also need to hold the client accountable for their behavior, such as stealing prescription opiates from a friend’s medicine cabinet.
4) Use firm, direct, honest communication. This is complementary to exercising compassionate accountability because this form of communication avoids enabling behaviors related to both pain management and addiction. No matter what, clients are responsible for the choices they make, and counselors need to be clear with clients about what they see.
5) Consider a harm-reduction perspective. This perspective means that the counselor walks the fine line of not enabling the client’s substance use while at the same time not requiring the client to suddenly commit themselves to abstinence. Instead, the counselor works within the reality of the client’s willingness and ability to change without encouraging the client to remain at the same level of change.
6) Complete assessment and treatment plans for both addiction and pain. This involves the counselor examining both areas in a broad way that includes the client’s fear of the pain returning and their psychological withdrawal from pain medication.
7) Watch for behavioral indicators of pain during the session. A significant amount of information can be gathered when the client is actively experiencing pain. The client’s pain experience can be processed in the moment, and the resulting information can assist both the assessment and treatment processes.
Counselors can use a simple anchoring assessment prompt to elicit each client’s story: “Tell me the story of your pain.”
That open-ended prompt has the power to draw out narratives that clients have perhaps not spoken about previously. These clients may be accustomed to closed questions or scaling questions regarding their pain, but they may never have had anyone ask about and then carefully listen to the actual story of their pain.
This motivational interviewing approach can readily draw out information about the impact of community, culture, family and multicultural factors on the individual’s self-report. For example, the client may talk about how pain is simply not discussed in their family and culture. As a result, they have learned not to reach out for support to address their pain. The counselor could then help the client develop skills to reach out to others who will be supportive of them as they live with their pain, or the counselor might refer the client to a group that discusses pain management approaches.
Another assessment approach is to have clients keep diaries or logs pertaining to their pain, sleep and nutrition. These logs can assist in obtaining information about pain patterns and contributing factors to pain. Such record-keeping also needs to focus on what the client is doing “right” as well as what they are doing “wrong,” in addition to times when the areas of pain, sleep and nutrition are going well for the client. The collection of this information is solution-focused and strength-based. It can become the cornerstone on which healing treatment is built.
The assessment of pain also needs to be considered within the context of addiction. So, although the client has pain, this does not mean that it is necessary for them to use substances to cope with that pain. Neither does the existence of pain prevent the client from being confronted about their addiction as a “stand-alone” diagnosis.
Thus, the message is twofold:
1) The client can learn to live with pain without the use of substances.
2) The client may need to be confronted solely on their use of substances.
Treatment for pain can involve various therapy modalities such as individual, group or family counseling. The counselor and client can choose the modality that seems to best fit the needs of the client, in combination with the resources available related to client income, agency resources and community resources.
Specific therapy approaches can include motivational interviewing, cognitive behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and grief counseling (because when dealing with chronic pain, clients frequently have issues of loss). It is within these forms of therapy where clinicians can legitimately practice counseling in their areas of competence by simply anchoring themselves in their treatment approach (e.g., therapy modalities, specific therapy approaches) and adding the lenses of “pain” and “substance abuse” by asking about information in the assessment process that broadly addresses these areas. Such broad assessment can assist the counselor in knowing whether the treatment of pain and substance use can be readily integrated into treatment or whether a more specific assessment and focused treatment of these areas are required.
Treatments that change the client’s relationship with the pain by focusing on the present (e.g., mindfulness, yoga, biofeedback, acupuncture) are also potential resources. In such cases, clients may remain aware of the pain but work with the knowledge that the intensity of their pain ebbs and flows and learn how to live with that process. They may also find techniques to reduce their pain.
Another treatment approach, described by Kirsten Weir in 2017 in Monitor on Psychology, encourages the client to practice self-care of the body through diet, exercise and sleep. It uses the metaphor of a stool with three legs. I developed the diagram above for the fifth edition of my book Learning the Language of Addiction Counseling (currently in press) to illustrate this metaphor.
The three-pronged stool is precariously balanced, which illustrates that self-care is not a static entity but rather one that needs to fluctuate depending on the client and the context. Each leg of the stool (diet, exercise, sleep) is needed to keep the overall stool (self-care) in balance. In other words, each leg has an impact on the others. For example, the experience of pain may negatively affect a client’s sleep, which then inhibits them from exercising and tempts them to eat unhealthy comfort foods. In contrast, a client who gets enough sleep may experience diminished pain, thus encouraging them to exercise and practice healthy eating. Counselors need to remind clients, however, that “pretty good” self-care is good enough; one does not have to practice “perfect” self-care to reap the benefits.
A final treatment approach involves counselors viewing themselves as part of a health management team. Such a team can consist of different health care professionals in which each professional has an important perspective on the unique aspects of the individual client’s pain and pain management. The unique components of the client’s pain determine the composition of such a team and the treatment system in which the team exists (e.g., hospital setting, private practice). Whether the team is formally or informally established by the counselor or by the system in which the counselor works, the counselor provides a critical mental health perspective that is needed for a holistic treatment approach.
As part of such a team, counselors familiarize themselves with any prescribed medications that the client is taking for chronic, active disorders. Counselors then play a role in the planned and gradual reduction of medications being taken. Counselors do not need to be experts in pain management or medications to be part of such a team or to be assigned to a formal team. The team approach can be extremely effective in serving the welfare of clients.
The counseling perspective offers important contributions to such teams, including a heightened sensitivity for clients’ pain stories and a commitment to advocating for clients. Such a perspective can result in an effective and humane approach to pain management and the use of prescription drugs. Additionally, this perspective can prevent clients from feeling like they are being dehumanized on a “medical assembly line” during the treatment process.
Clinicians can work effectively with clients by integrating pain management and substance use approaches into their already-existing counseling approaches. Awareness of the prevalence of chronic pain and its potential interaction with substance use can assist counselors during the assessment and treatment process.
Chronic pain and substance use frequently overlap, but they are areas that can easily be missed in terms of their impact on clients’ presenting problems. Simply by integrating the lenses of pain management and substance use into their counseling — asking questions and intervening as necessary — clinicians can offer a more holistic approach to their clients.
The development of these lenses can be enhanced through continuing education, ongoing training and staying informed on current research. There are some excellent resources (see below) that counselors can add to their clinical toolboxes. Counselors who commit to more deeply examining the areas of pain management and substance use can improve their overall treatment effectiveness and, thus, act in the best interests of their clients.
- American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA): theacpa.org
- American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM): asam.org
- Chronic Pain Anonymous: chronicpainanonymous.org
- Pills Anonymous: pillsanonymous.org
- Medication Assisted Recovery Anonymous: mara-international.org
- ACPA resource guide to chronic pain management: tinyurl.com/ACPAResourceGuide
- ASAM national practice guideline for the use of medications in the treatment of addiction involving opioid use: tinyurl.com/ASAMPracticeGuideline
- “CDC guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain—United States, 2016”: tinyurl.com/CDCOpioidChronicPain
- The Pain Toolkit: paintoolkit.org/resources/for-professionals
- Pain-Free Living for Drug-Free People: A Guide to Pain Management in Recovery by Marvin D. Seppala and David P. Martin
- Cognitive Therapy for Chronic Pain: A Step-by-Step Guide by Beverly E. Thorn
- The Pain Survival Guide: How to Become Resilient and Reclaim Your Life by Dennis C. Turk and Frits Winter
Learn more: ACA has produced a series of webinars with Miller on this topic. See more at ACA’s Professional Development Center: https://aca.digitellinc.com/aca/speakers/view/22581
Geri Miller is a licensed professional counselor, licensed clinical addiction specialist, certified clinical supervisor, master addiction counselor, licensed psychologist, diplomate in counseling psychology and a professor in the Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling at Appalachian State University. She has worked in the counseling profession since 1976 and in the addictions field since 1979. She has published and presented research on counseling, and the fifth edition of her book Learning the Language of Addiction Counseling is currently in press. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.