Join Martha, along with Don Teater, MD, MPH, for a webinar on treating chronic pain on Friday, September 7, from 3:00-4:30 pm EST. Register here.
It’s estimated that one-third of Americans live with chronic pain. As marriage and family therapists we know that this suffering impacts more than just the person who hurts, it takes a toll on the whole family system.
We are also aware that MFTs are up against an epidemic unlike any we’ve been faced with before. The scourge of opioid misuse and unintended overdose deaths is destroying individual lives as it wreaks havoc on couples and families.
These two issues are linked in a devastating way.
Chronic pain lasts longer than three months. It doesn’t respond very well to medication or medical interventions. People with chronic pain—and their therapists—may struggle to find solutions. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has concluded that behavioral treatment is the evidence-based treatment of choice for chronic pain. That means that MFTs are front-line providers in treating pain.
The best supported approaches are familiar to most MFTs—CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) and mindfulness. While many clinicians have skills in those areas they may need some guidance in how to apply them to help distressed individuals and families.
CBT tools like the ABC worksheet, thought distortions, decatastrophizing, and automatic negative thoughts can help people take a new look at how they interpret their physical and emotional distress. We can equip people to modify their thoughts about their pain, leading to better outcomes.
Mindfulness approaches can help people feel calmer and less reactive to both physical and emotional discomfort. Mindful practices like relaxation breathing, meditation, yoga, body scan, guided imagery, individualized visualization, body scan, and progressive muscle relaxation can all provide significant relief from symptoms.
While MFTs play a leading role in pain treatment, we play a supportive role in treating opioid misuse. Treatment of choice for opioid use disorder (OUD) is medication-assisted treatment, which is methadone, buprenorphine (Suboxone), and naltexone (Vivitrol). OUD treatment is unlike treatment for any other use disorder. Research evidence shows no benefit to using the traditional model of detox, inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient, and abstinence-based approaches.
MFTs can help people in medication-assisted treatment rebuild their lives, reconnect with their families, and gain freedom from the heartache of a use disorder. We are well-positioned to provide meaningful support to people as they recover.
MFTs can make a significant difference for people and families who are hurting—literally. As we gain skills in treating pain we will also be reducing the risk of opioid misuse and overdose in our communities.
And that’s where MFTs shine—helping individuals, families, and communities overcome the burdens of chronic pain and opioid misuse.
Martha Teater, MA, LMFT, is a clinical fellow of AAMFT. A practicing therapist, she has worked in integrated primary care, medication-assisted treatment, and free clinic settings. She has provided hundreds of trainings across the U.S. and internationally. She is co-author (with Don Teater) of Treating Chronic Pain: Pill-Free Approaches to Move from Hurt to Hope.