Psycho-sensory relationships in chronic pain

Daniel S Harvie, Daniela Vasco, Michele Sterling, Samantha Low-Choy, Nils G Niederstrasser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Psychological variables contribute to pain- and injury-related outcomes. We examined the hypothesis that anatomical spread and intensity of persistent pain relate to anxiety-related variables: generalised anxiety, fear of pain and pain catastrophising.

Methods: An online survey was used to gather data from 413 women with persistent pain (low back pain, n = 139; fibromyalgia syndrome, n = 95; neck pain, n = 55; whiplash, n = 41; rheumatoid arthritis, n = 37; migraine, n = 46). The spread and intensity of pain were assessed using the McGill pain chart and a Numerical Rating Scale. A Bayesian Structural Equation Model assessed if the intensity and spread of pain increased with anxiety-related variables. Men were also surveyed (n = 80), but the sample size was only sufficient for analysing if their data were consistent with the model for women.

Results: Across subgroups of women, one standard deviation increase in catastrophising, generalised anxiety and fear corresponded to 27%, 7% and −1% additional pain areas and a 1.1, 0 and –0.1 change in pain intensity (on 0–10 scale), respectively. Overall, our clinical significance criterion – a 30% shift in pain variable in relation to one standard deviation increase in psychological variable – was not met. However, in subgroups it was met for pain spread (low back pain, neck pain and migraine) and pain intensity (migraine and neck pain) in relation to pain catastrophising. The model generally had low goodness-of-fit to men.

These data support a meaningful relationship between some anxiety-related variables and pain in women for some conditions. Since the model did not consistently fit the men, we may conclude that the relationships are moderated by sex. Clinician attention to psychological variables as potential contributing factors can be justified; however, research is needed to understand the relationship and whether psychological treatment can reduce pain.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-146
JournalBritish Journal of Pain
Issue number2
Early online date27 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


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