‘Survivor’ winner reveals scientific tips for dealing with chronic pain

ADELAIDE, Australia — Living with chronic pain is a part of daily life for millions of people. Now, researchers from the University of South Australia are proposing three major pain concepts, or ways of thinking about pain, that can help chronic pain sufferers better manage their conditions. At the core of this approach is the idea that pain in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean someone is dealing with an injury. Additionally, emotional and mental elements influence feelings of pain as well, not just what’s happening physically.

Interestingly, UniSA PhD candidate and 2021 Australian “Survivor” champion, Hayley Leake, conducted this research. Leake had to endure a number of tough and probably painful challenges during her time on the TV show. These experiences, combined with her scientific background, afford her a unique perspective on the subject of pain.

Her study finds that understanding these three concepts can help people living with chronic pain:

  1. Pain does not always mean the body is damaged.
  2. Thoughts, emotions, and experiences influence pain sensations.
  3. Pain systems can become “overprotective,” but can also be retrained.

‘Reframing knowledge of pain’

“Chronic pain is experienced by one in five Australians, and when pain persists, it can disrupt every aspect of life – including school or work, social and family connections, and physical and mental health,” Leake says in a university release. “Modern pain science suggests that pain is a protective output from the brain in response to threat. Threat may take many forms, not just what’s happening in your body, but also your thoughts, emotions and context.”

“In the final challenge on Survivor, I stood on narrow pegs for almost five and a half hours. To manage that pain, I tried to de-threaten the challenge in my mind by repeating to myself: ‘My feet are strong, my body is safe, this is not dangerous.’ Having a deeper than usual understanding of how pain works thanks to my research, and how strong and resilient our body tissue is, probably also reduced my pain during that task,” she explains.

“Using this same model – less threat equals less pain – I’m exploring misconceptions about pain. Primarily, the misconception that pain reflects tissue damage. By reframing knowledge of pain, I’m hopeful that we can make a positive difference to the lives of people challenged by chronic pain.”

The research team taught 97 adults living with chronic pain about these ideas. They found that the lessons indeed helped most recover from their chronic pain. The study notes the participants learned to understand that their pain doesn’t necessarily mean their body is injured; that stress and emotion can heighten pain perceptions; and that it is possible to reframe pain as an “overprotection” which someone can reduce.

Teaching teens to deal with pain

It’s also important to mention that chronic pain is by no means limited to older adults, or even adults at all. Leake explains that teenagers tend to become particularly emotional if their doctor diagnoses them with having chronic pain.

“Teenagers report feeling uncertain and anxious about their diagnosis of chronic pain; they want a further explanation beyond just a label. It is important we help them make sense of their pain,” she says. “When communicating pain concepts to teenagers, we’ve identified seven learning objectives that can help teenagers better understand pain:”

  1. Pain is a protector
  2. The pain system can become overprotective
  3. Pain is a brain output
  4. Pain is not an accurate marker of tissue state
  5. There are many potential contributors to anyone’s pain
  6. We are all bioplastic (adaptable to change)
  7. Pain education is treatment.

“Ideally, helping teenagers learn that pain does not indicate tissue or body damage, may disassociate any fear of re-injury, helping them move and start to recover sooner,” she concludes. “By helping them understand that stress can affect pain, they are motivated to address this in their lives. Reframing perceptions of pain is key. Instilling hope that change is possible can make all the difference to a young person struggling with chronic pain.”

The study is published in the journal Pain.