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Understanding and helping using the Biopsychosocial approach

Managing symptoms and dealing with challenges that may arise as a result of a chronic illness is difficult. Often, when trying to manage symptoms, it can feel like an uphill battle and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. If you have a loved one, a family member, or a friend with neuropathy you know that being accommodating and supportive is of utmost importance. Many people want to be supportive, however, they simply don’t know how to help. This blog post will explain the biopsychosocial approach to chronic pain management, which is a heuristic perspective on managing chronic pain symptoms. Being aware of this approach to pain management allows us to offer better support to someone with neuropathy.

What is the biopsychosocial approach?

In the past, the perspective on chronic pain management was focused solely on the biological condition of the individual. However, this does not consider how one’s psychological condition, such as their negative emotions, can influence proactive recovery behaviours; or, how social factors can also antagonize the pain condition. The biopsychosocial model was first introduced by George Engel, and views pain as “a dynamic interaction among and within the biological, psychological and social factors unique to each individual” (1). The main idea is that as the biological condition of an individual worsens, so do the psychological and social components, and so must also be managed.

How the biological, psychological and social factors influence pain.

This perspective views pain “as a chronic illness which cannot but be cured, but only managed”.1 This approach believes that everyone’s pain is unique and diverse. Therefore, the focus is not so much on curing the illness, which of course is unlikely with neuropathy, but rather on managing the symptoms of the chronic illness. It is also important to distinguish between the terms ‘nociception’ and ‘pain’, where nociception is “associated with sensory input” 1 and pain is “subjective perception resulting from sensory input” 1. Suffering and pain behaviours are “influenced by both previous experiences and anticipation of potential consequences” 1.

For example, someone that goes through a painful experience can be fearful of recurrence or become less active as a result, slowing down the recovery process. Individuals with a chronic illness can experience “psychological and behavioural distress, such as anger, somatization, and learned helplessness” 1. Someone experiencing these things may believe they have no control over their situation, leaving them unmotivated to actively manage symptoms. The individual no longer attempts to regain control of their situation, even if they have the potential to do so, because they feel helpless to change anything. These are all psychological factors that can not only antagonize the pain condition, but also hinder one’s ability to manage their pain symptoms.

Additionally, when an individual becomes emotionally compromised, he/she can lose touch with reality and negate their responsibilities. As a result, the individual’s support group will need to step in and take care of the responsibilities, and in doing so can “reinforce the avoidant behaviours” 1. This lack of motivation and the neglection of responsibilities can interfere with the individual’s job, resulting in financial difficulties, which can further “exacerbate the affective state as well”1.

How to Help

The biopsychosocial model is a heuristic model of managing chronic pain, which not only considers the biological component of the illness, but also the psychological and social components as well. These are all “intertwined components seen to modulate the patient’s perception of pain and disability”, there are a few ways to support someone with neuropathy, which can be implemented right away.

  • Firstly, establishing a “Judgement Free Zone” 2 can create a safe environment where one is comfortable sharing their feelings, worries, or doubts, without the fear of being judged. This environment stimulates healthy conversation, which can lead to a healthier state of mind.  
  • Secondly, exercising together2 is with great ways to establish a stronger bond with the individual, and can even lead to a new, healthy habit. Healthy habits can improve mood, increase motivation and reduce feelings of depression, loneliness and anxiety.
  • Lastly, offering “Unconditional support”2 can help make managing symptoms feel less like an uphill battle. Between managing pain symptoms, work, and attending to any other responsibilities, it’s important to understand sometimes one just needs to “vent” and have their feelings heard. During these times, listening is the best thing to do. While an individual with neuropathy must attend to the biological component of the illness with medication, there are ways to offer support which can lead to a healthier psychological state and prevent financial difficulties as a result of neglecting one’s responsibilities and promote a better state of mind.

Related CNA Resources

The mental strain from neuropathy often is as serious as the physical pain.

You can’t see it, but it is there. CNA is here to listen.


Practical Pain Management. The Biopsychosocial Approach.

  1. Siren. How to support someone with diabetes and neuropathy. https://siren.care/blog/support-someone-diabetes-neuropathy/
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