Health Board turns to virtual groups to offer support to people with chronic pain

Madeleine Pollitt, 55, is originally from Australia. She has had chronic pain for some 30 years, after extensive surgery when she almost lost her leg.

By Lucy Ashton

Living with chronic pain can be a lonely and often isolating experience. As well as debilitating physical illness, the impact on people’s mental health and wider relationships with friends and family can be huge, holding many back from a life well lived.

According to the British Pain Society, chronic pain affects two fifths of the UK population, with 14.3% living with chronic pain that is either moderately or severely disabling. Before the pandemic, as part of a number of ways to help those affected, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde ran face-to-face Pain Management Programmes, the “gold standard” in interventions which focus on quality of life.

Dr David Craig, Consultant Psychologist and Clinical Lead at the Pain Management Programme, explained: “The groups were designed to help people think differently about their pain and consider what the barriers are, both physical and mental, to having a better quality of life and figuring out ways of living well with their pain.”

“But then COVID arrived and we had to rethink the whole service.”

David paid tribute to the NHS GGC Pain Management Programme team for their work in responding to the pandemic. He added: “They worked hard to think of ways to deliver the courses and group work virtually, conscious that not everyone with pain can sit in front of a computer screen for long periods of time. The solution was a mix of pre-recorded videos and ‘home practice’ for those attending, allowing screen time to be reserved for guided group discussions on topics covered in the material sent out”.

“The course is designed for people who are living with persistent pain, in most cases for many years. It combines expertise from Physiotherapy, Nursing, Occupational Therapy and Clinical Psychology”

David added: “A part of what we try to do within the Pain Management Programme is to validate the reality of people’s lived experience. Pain is sometimes dismissed, but what someone tells us about their pain on any given day, that is their pain.”

“We try to make sure people are heard and listened to and understood. People know that they are in a group with others who understand and have similar problems to them – that is one of the most important elements. We have structured, patient-centred sessions which focus on helping participants develop a range of coping strategies. The aim is to help people overcome barriers to living in ways that are important to them. Participants can share experiences of what works best for them”

“Importantly, Pain Management Programmes have a strong scientific evidence base to support their efficacy, but participants need to be ready and willing to invest time and energy in the programme”.

Madeleine Pollitt, 55, is originally from Australia. She has had chronic pain for some 30 years, after extensive surgery when she almost lost her leg.

“I have pretty much global pain now,” she said. “I’m doing a lot less than I did even a few years ago. The pain is life-changing and it causes problems with how I relate to people – I became a lot more isolated because it affected me so much. I was always tired and always anticipating what might come next. You were always worried about the next invite to a friend’s house and worrying if you could even sit in someone’s chair or sofa.

Six years ago, Madeleine and her family moved to Scotland, achieving a lifelong ambition to live in the country. However, the pain was still to the fore. She added: “I’m in this paradise and I can’t enjoy it. It got me really down. It became quite depressing.”

Madeleine hid her pain from employers, at times quitting jobs when they became too much, instead of sharing the burden of her pain.

She added: “It’s only since I started the Pain Management Programme that I even opened up to people. I had this big front that I put on – people had no idea – and I would take the morphine, power through the work I had on and then when I got home I was a nightmare. There was a lot of shame associated with the pain – and it caused resentment and anger.

“It wasn’t until I did the virtual groups that I began to turn a corner. I hadn’t realised how many barriers I had up. It was really brilliant, people just understand. I remember the facilitator said that between us there was 107 years of pain in the group. This is a really significant thing for a lot of people and I felt real solidarity and validation.”

The groups provided information on how to think about pain in different ways as well as support with practical ways to deal with the impacts on everyday life and relationships. Sessions included stretching exercises, psychological support, education on pain and how it affects the body and mindfulness sessions to help change the way people recognise emotions and how to handle them better.

“You’ve got to live with the pain and find ways of living with it,” Madeleine added. “Within two weeks of the virtual groups, just magically all of the anger and resentment which I had has just dropped away. It’s not just one life that’s benefited – it’s changed my life and the life of my daughter and partner.

“There really is a way forward now.”

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