Applied Behavior Analysis in Conjunction with Pain Management

ABA in Tandem with Pain Management Therapy

In addition to its many applications for modifying personal and social behaviors, applied behavior analysis (ABA) can also be used in conjunction with other pain management tactics to reduce the impact of physical discomfort. While pain from an injury or illness is rooted in basic physiological responses, many patients develop psychological responses that can prolong or exacerbate the sensation. Behavior analysis and therapy have become an integral component of modern pain management for helping patients deal with pain, especially in cases of long-term or chronic discomfort.

Related resource: Top 15 Best Online Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

Perceived Pain and Coping Mechanisms

Acute and immediate pain is usually the direct result of signals sent from damaged nerves to the brain, which provokes a chemical response that triggers various neurological reactions. However, many people suffering from long-term pain from a chronic or persistent condition can continue experiencing discomfort even after the source has been mitigated. Patients can also create new sources of pain while trying to avoid the discomfort of their current condition. A person suffering from pain may avoid certain types of activities or body movements, like adopting a limp, which ultimately increases the discomfort or produces new sources of pain by weakening other parts of the body.

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Addressing Pain with Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis has proven to be an effective tool for healthcare providers who are helping a patient overcome perceived pain, coping mechanisms and other psychological obstacles on their road to recovery. Behavior analysts apply basic strategies, like operant conditioning and exposure therapy, to help subjects adopt healthier attitudes and habits regarding their health. Therapists may use trial training to encourage a patient to complete a full range of therapeutic exercises despite painful sensations. They also work with individuals to develop personal coping mechanisms that don’t have a negative effect on their long-term recovery.

Common Applications for ABA in Pain Management

While the principles of behavior analysis can be applied in almost any kind of therapeutic or healthcare environment, they are particularly useful for managing discomfort stemming from long-term or chronic conditions. As of 2011, there were an estimated 100 million adults suffering from chronic pain in the United States alone, according to the American Psychological Association. ABA methods can be successfully applied to numerous types and sources of discomfort, including broken limbs, degenerative diseases, headache, and persistent back pain. Behavior analysis is also used to address mental pain associated with trauma or personal fears, including extreme emotional responses related to diagnosed phobias.

The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Model

In the context of pain management, the application of behavior analysis often takes the form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This umbrella term describes several types of therapies that focus on thought as a precursor and cause of feeling or behavior. Patients are encouraged to change and modify their thoughts in order to produce a change in emotion, attitude and eventually physical response. CBT is characterized by its relatively brief time limitation, with clients participating in an average of around 16 sessions total, according to the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists. CBT practitioners often engage their patients in thought-provoking discussion, guide them through structured therapy sessions and find other ways to empower them to take control of their own psychological responses.

Combined Approach to Clinical Pain Therapy

While ABA can be a primary and exclusive treatment for various behavioral disorders, it is rarely used this way in a pain management setting. Instead, behavior analysts work as part of a large and diverse team that helps patients deal with discomfort on all levels. In a conventional clinical environment, a pain management team can include behavior analysts as well as physical therapists, specialist doctors and nursing staff. A combined, comprehensive approach to pain therapy offers patients a range of tools and resources to help them overcome pain in a way that promotes long-term health and improves their overall quality of life.

ABA Careers in Pain Management

As combined pain therapy becomes more common, ABA practitioners who are interested in pain management enjoy an expanding array of available career options. Many therapists work in larger institutional environments, like public and private hospitals, as part of a diverse professional team. Others take positions at smaller clinics or therapeutic facilities that provide specialty services or serve a limited client base. Experienced psychologists and behavior analysts can also choose to focus on research rather than practice, so they seek positions that allow them to conduct trials and gather data to pursue advancements in the field of pain therapy.

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Education and Career Preparation

As with many careers in applied behavior analysis, practitioners working in pain management usually need to have at least a master’s degree in their field. Many positions in patient care require some previous experience, particularly for management or supervisory roles. All practitioners are also expected and usually required, to also be certified by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). Individuals interested in pursuing high-level positions or conduct independent research usually pursue a doctorate in their area of specialization.

Additional Reading and Resources

Students and current practitioners of behavior analysis can take advantage of numerous available resources to learn more about how their profession intersects with modern pain therapy techniques. There are various professional organizations dedicated to pain management, including the American Chronic Pain Association and the Academy of Integrative Pain Management. Behavior analysts can also read about recent research, diverse expert opinions, and other information through professional publications, including those by the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI).

Despite the many advances and developments in pain therapy over the last few decades, there are still plenty of uncertainties and unknowns. This presents both challenges and opportunities for practitioners who are dedicated to finding reliable methods for making their patients’ lives better. Even though the human brain and basic neurological functions still hold many mysteries, there is ample evidence to suggest that applied behavior analysis in conjunction with a combined pain management approach can significantly improve patient responses and outlook for recovery.