Optimizing long-term outcomes of exposure for chronic primary pain from the lens of learning theory

Rena Gatzounis, Marlies den Hollander, Ann Meulders*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

Exposure in vivo is a theory-driven and widely used treatment to tackle functional disability in people with chronic primary pain. Exposure is quite effective; yet, in line with exposure outcomes for anxiety disorders, a number of patients may not profit from it, or relapse. In this focus article, we critically reflect on the current exposure protocols in chronic primary pain, and provide recommendations on how to optimize them. We propose several adaptations that are expected to strengthen inhibitory learning and/or retrieval of the extinction memory, thus likely decreasing relapse. We summarise the limited, but emerging experimental data in the pain domain, and draw parallels with experimental evidence in the anxiety literature. Our reflections and suggestions pertain to the use of the fear hierarchy, reassurance, positive psychology interventions, exposure with a range of stimuli and within different contexts, and the use of safety behaviours during treatment, as well as associating the fear-inducing stimuli with novel outcomes. In addition, we reflect on the importance of specifically tackling (the return of) pain-related avoidance behaviour with techniques such as disentangling fear from avoidance and reinforcing approach behaviours. Finally, we discuss challenges in the clinical application of exposure to improve functioning in chronic primary pain and possible avenues for future research. Perspectives: Inspired by recent advances in learning theory and its applications on the treatment of anxiety disorders, we reflect on the delivery of exposure treatment for chronic primary pain and propose strategies to improve its long-term outcomes.

Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Journal of Pain
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 21 May 2021

Cite this