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7 Ways Communication Can Help Reshape Perceptions of Chronic Pain

About 50 million adults in the United States suffer from chronic pain - pain that lasts longer than three months. It’s a pervasive problem, yet one that is almost entirely absent from the public consciousness.


A recent study, conducted by Gregory Carbonetti under the auspices of the Rita Allen Civic Science Fellows program, and colleagues from the Alda Center and ScienceCounts, sought to learn more about perceptions of pain as a first step to raising awareness and eventually support for research funding.


The report made seven recommendations that may, in future, help spark a public conversation about chronic pain. 


Read the full report.


  1. Raise awareness of chronic pain. Even people who have not experienced chronic pain express empathy toward those with the condition, particularly because of its impact on productivity and quality of life, and its connection to depression.


  1. Experts can demonstrate that current treatments aren’t good enough - new ones are necessary. This can help create a sense of urgency among the public because safe, effective treatments are rare and can be short-lived. It may be important to avoid playing too much on public sympathy, because many people may question if those with chronic pain “do enough” to manage their condition.


  1. Rebrand chronic pain to undermine existing judgements about those with pain. Phrases like “unresolved pain” or “persistent pain” may help change perceptions that a “chronic” condition can be managed with treatment and lifestyle changes. These alternative names highlight how elusive chronic pain understanding and management can be.


  1. Don’t try to convince folks pain may not have an obvious cause or underlying condition. Trying to do this does not increase engagement or empathy.Instead, focus on the challenges of finding solutions.


  1. Give patients better, more personalized care by improving training and education among health care professionals. Most people agree that patients aren’t heard well enough in our current healthcare system. Personalized treatment is appealing to everyone, and raises expectations that medical teams will collaborate to find solutions for patients.


  1. Increase patients’ sense of agency by expanding conversations around treatment options to discuss benefits, risks and expectations. This is especially true in the case of opioids, but applies to all treatment options. Patients should receive more than a laundry list of choices, with time to talk to their healthcare provider(s) about risks, benefits, and effectiveness.


  1. Work to reach audiences who are already prepared to engage on the issue. The report identified two audiences - frontline fighters and pain-free populists - who may share characteristics that make them likely to join a movement early. Frontline fighters tend to be younger and more willing to engage on the issue, and to possess a greater sense of urgency. Pain-free populists tend to be health conscious, empathic toward those who suffer with chronic pain, and already support health-related causes.   


Want to learn more? Read the full report.

Gregory Carbonetti, PhD

Greg Carbonetti achieved his PhD in molecular and cellular biology, with a concentration in immunology and pathology, from Stony Brook University. Working in the laboratories of Martin Kaczocha and Dale Deutsch, Greg conducted research on fatty acid binding proteins and the role of the endocannabinoid system in both pain relief and prostate cancer metastasis. More recently, Greg worked at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science as the Alda Civic Science Fellow in Chronic Pain within the Rita Allen Foundation’s Civic Science Fellows Program. The goal of Greg’s fellowship was to increase chronic pain awareness, engagement, and advocacy among the American public.

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