Every clinician treating musculoskeletal injury or disease knows that pain perception among patients is highly subjective and variable. Given the same objective magnitude of a pain stimulus, one person will grade it a 2 on the visual analog scale (VAS), while another will rate it an 8. I am sure that every dentist experiences similar patient variability! What is behind this, and what can we do with our decision making related to pain management to ensure compassionate and effective orthopaedic care?
We know that cultural and social factors play a role in pain perception, as do smoking and opiate-abuse history. Now, in a prognostic study in the August 5, 2015 edition of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Ernat et al. identify an association between pharmacologic treatment for anxiety and depression and poor outcomes, including higher postoperative pain scores, following primary surgery for femoroacetabular impingement (FAI) among members of the US military. The between-group difference in pain scores was significant only for antidepressant use, but 33 of the 37 patients in the study who took mental-health medications were on antidepressants.
I wonder whether the anxiety and depressive response to situational or relational stimuli that prompt an individual to seek mental-health treatment may be closely related to the same person’s response to painful musculoskeletal stimuli. Alternatively, incompletely treated anxiety or depression may influence a patient’s pain response to surgical treatment of FAI.
Either way, we need more research in this area so we can better manage our patients. An interesting study by Kane et al. that tested various approaches to standardizing patient pain reports showed how difficult normalizing pain scores is, but we still need to encourage further research into responses to painful stimuli, whether they be psychological or physical.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD