The lived experience – qualitative research in the field of chronic pain   March 1st, 2022

​There is something tempting about numbers and figures. They are ‘clear’, we believe them to be straightforward and helpful in untangling our complex world. In healthcare, both clinical and in research, we love quantitative measures. For instance, when studying the phenomenon of pain, the most straightforward way to measure pain is to score the Visual Analogue Scale or VAS. It is a number from 0 to 10, no pain to excruciating pain. In research, we then love to combine or test these numbers. So, we use the VAS and objectify whether those who score ‘high’ on the VAS also score ‘high’ on other measures. For instance, depression and/or pain catastrophizing in order to untangle and further understand pain.

Yet, what does that number say? What is a score ‘7’ on the VAS? To some, a score ‘7’ on the VAS would be debilitating and they would be unable to perform meaningful tasks, to others it means their pain is there, yet they push through. And that is the crux with quantitative measures! Even though it is necessary to use them, and they have helped us a lot, the experience of pain is not as straightforward as a few numbers. One could even question how helpful it is in untangling the complex world of pain?

That is where qualitative research comes in the picture. Qualitative research seeks to gain an in depth understanding of social phenomena in the context in which they arise. Therefore, qualitative research is humanistic in nature. Especially in the field of chronic pain, qualitative research can help us deeply understand the complexity and individual experience of pain. Qualitative research is helpful in describing the similarities, but also the differences in which for instance treatments are experienced. Maybe the description of those ‘different shades of grey’ reflects the complexity of not only pain, but life itself? 

Are you interested to read qualitative studies within the field of chronic pain? Summarizing these would in my opinion do no justice to these well-articulated voices, so here are some suggestions to start with:

(Un)doing gender in a rehabilitation context: a narrative analysis of gender and self in stories of chronic muscle pain Birgitte Ahlsen, Hilde Bondevik, Anne Marit Mengshoel, and Kari Nyheim Solbrække, Disabl Rehabil. 2014 May; 36(5):359-66

Easy to Harm, Hard to Heal: Patient Views About the BackBen Darlow, Sarah Dean, Meredith Perry, Fiona Mathieson, G David Baxter, Anthony Dowell, Spine (Phila Pa 1976), 2015 Jun 1;40(11):842-50

‘‘There’s More to This Pain Than Just Pain’’: How Patients’ Understanding of Pain Evolved During a Randomized Controlled Trial for Chronic Pain. Marianne S. Matthias, Edward J. Miech, Laura J. Myers, Christy Sargent, and Matthew J. Bair J Pain 2012 Jun;13

And (humbly) our study on the experiences of transdisciplinary pain education:

What is important in transdisciplinary pain neuroscience education? A qualitative study. Wijma AJ, Speksnijder CM, Crom-Ottens AF, Knulst-Verlaan JMC, Keizer D, Nijs J, van Wilgen CP. Disabil Rehabil. 2018 Sep;40(18):2181-2191.

Of course this is a small selection on qualitative research regarding the experience of chronic pain, so I wondered: Which study do you suggest should be added to this list?

Amarins Wijma

2022  Pain in Motion