Communication Matters: Pain Relief Through Not Being a Jerk

Communication is key.  I want you to think about the last time you sought services from a healthcare provider or fitness coach.  What image or main idea did they communicate to you?  How did they describe the service they provided?  How did they describe your need for that service?  

Let’s be more specific.  Did they describe this encounter as something you desperately needed to fulfill some glaring deficiency?  Or did they instead describe the ways in which this service was going to enhance your ability to have fun and seek fulfillment.  Because the answer to that question, as it turns out, is extremely important.  

But first check out this video:

Now in the case that you don’t have time, can’t play any sounds from your device right now or are just trying not to blow your cover while wasting time at work (don’t worry I’ll be cool) I’ll sum the video up: a british sorcerer uses his dark powers of mind control to manipulate the decisions of two ad men and in doing so robs them of their childish beliefs in free will.  

Now obviously that summary is both inaccurate and kind of stupid.  But you’re curious now, right?  Watch it, seriously I really mean it when I say that it is “super interesting.”  Because it perfectly illustrates that concept I want to talk about today.  Its called priming.  And its the well known phenomenon of being able to influence cognition, personal affect and even decision making through the introduction of prior ideas.  

And so it all just boils down to one simple idea.  A trite idea that you have heard over and over again.  But an important one nonetheless.  Communication matters. Good communication is going to have very real and very powerful effects on both your journey through pain and the outcome of your care.  

Working through and moving beyond your pain is your journey.  You have the power over the process.  But the care-provider, the doctor, the therapist, coach or whomever you decide to invite onto the team will to act as a sort of ‘sherpa.’  If your sherpa decides to take a path which involves negativity, “dysfunctions” or “derangements” and is fixated on the concept of fixing ‘a mess,’ then that means that you’re going to have to struggle through that same crappy path.  But if your sherpa instead decides to take the smoother, flatter trails of resilience and optimism while actually teaching you how to do some pathfinding of your own then you are going to have a much easier climb.  

Communication matters. Good communication is going to have very real and very powerful effects on both your journey through pain and the outcome of your care.

You’re in charge.  You’re the leader of the expedition but your sherpa is guiding you on the path.  Therefore his or her words, by extension, are of critical importance to your journey.  Now typically I would like for these articles to be a little more casual and conversational in their content and tone.  However, this article will be a little bit different.  

The reason I am going to treat this concept differently is because I know that you are an intelligent [likely an] adult who is both capable and responsible to make your own decisions.  I’m not suggesting that anyone seeking care is some kind of weak willed pushover who can be led by the nose.  

This phenomenon of priming is a universal phenomenon that we see in all people and across a variety of different contexts.  Furthermore, the occurrence of priming has nothing to do with and indeed is completely independent of intelligence.  So no its not just “dumb guys” who demonstrate this priming effect.  Its all of us.  Its just the way that our brains work.  

So to demonstrate that fact, I actually want to provide a few peer-reviewed sources to back this claim up.  This “references” section is in no way comprehensive its just a show of good faith that I am not just making something up for a contrarian blog post.  


Clinical relevance of contextual factors as triggers of placebo and nocebo effects in musculoskeletal pain

This one describes how contextual factors inherent to the interaction between provider and patient during the encounter influences the effects of the care

The Full Paper

The Effect of Priming with Photographs of Environmental Settings on Walking Speed in an Outdoor Environment

This one reviews how photographs can alter the walking speeds of viewers.  In this case, photographs of nature had a positive effect on viewers.  

The Full Paper

Influence of Priming on Patient-Reported Outcome Measures: A Randomized Controlled Trial

In this one, a subjective pain rating too is described with either more positive or more negative language and word choice.  Thus the patients who were “primed” with the more positive imagery had better outcomes.  

The Abstract

When Words Are Painful: Unraveling the Mechanisms of the Nocebo Effect

This one describes the way in which a care provider going on and on about whatever state of perceived ‘disrepair’ a body may be in will effect the person’s expectations.  Those expectations will determine the outcome of the care. 

The Abstract

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