How to Become a Pain Psychologist

Overview

Psychologists observe human behavior, interpret their findings, and record how individuals relate to each other and interact with their environment. They study brain function and behavior to make these determinations. Psychologists interview people to identify emotional and behavioral patterns, and they may test people individually or in groups to predict their behavior. Their goal is to analyze information and apply the results to strategies that can assist patients in coping with their environment and dealing with other people more effectively.

Pain psychology is a type of clinical psychology. Clinical psychologists assess, diagnose and treat long and short term disorders for individuals experiencing emotional, behavioral and mental problems. They may provide psychotherapy to the individual, the family or to groups, and they use data to design behavior modification programs.

Related: Becoming a Clinical Psychologist

What is Pain Psychology?

Pain psychology is a fairly young field of psychology that started in the 1960s when it became clear that medicine alone could not treat all kind of pains. At the time, a growing number of people reported struggling with chronic pain despite of the obvious advances in medicine. This field was created to help such people. Naturally, psychologists working in the field of pain psychology collaborate closely with medical doctors but pain psychology focuses on studying, evaluating, and treating chronic pain with psychological methods instead of medical ones. Psychologists specializing in pain psychology typically help their clients cope with various aspects of chronic pain, such as the feelings caused by pain or the behavior they engage in while in pain.

Pain psychology also aims to make it possible for a patient with chronic pain to live as normal of a life as possible. Sometimes this goal is reached by teaching the client relaxation or meditation techniques. Other times this can be accomplished through changes at work or at home. Many patients also need hypnosis, cognitive-behavioral therapies, or stress reduction training in order to learn to better cope with their pain.

Recent developments in the fields of both psychology and neuroscience, such as the development of the so called “Gate Control Theory” by Drs. Melzack and Wall, have had a huge effect on the field of pain psychology and have demonstrated that psychosocial treatments have an important role in experiencing pain. Consequently, pain is not just a simple physiological response to certain stimuli, but a result of the brain’s active interpretation process that could be altered.

What Does a Pain Psychologist Do?

Pain psychologists work with patients who are experiencing chronic pain. A pain psychologist assists patients who are suffering from physical pain, including individuals who are suffering from psychosomatic disorders where the pain is a manifestation of a psychological problem.

Chronic pain can impact a patient’s ability to engage in normal activities and continue relationships with other people. As challenges increase and daily activities such as exercise and spending time with friends become limited, the patient may experience anxiety and depression. Pain psychologists use their awareness of the mind-body connection that links the physical sense of pain with the emotions associated with pain to help patients. They instruct patients about regulating their thoughts and emotions so that they can make appropriate behavioral choices and improve their management of chronic pain.

Pain psychologists often work as part of a healthcare team in a hospital or clinic. In this setting, they may educate the medical staff about psychological issues of the patient and promote healthy living strategies in addition to educating the patients themselves.

Where Does a Pain Psychologist Work?

Pain psychologists generally have a doctoral degree in clinical psychology with an APA accredited post-doctoral fellowship in chronic pain. Some pain psychologists work in private practice. However, most are part of a multidisciplinary health care team assembled for pain treatment. Team workers may see patients in a private pain clinic, in an academic pain clinic or in a hospital rehabilitation facility. Some pain psychologists work in chronic pain functional restoration programs.

What are the Requirements to Become a Pain Psychologist?

Education

Pain psychologists typically need a doctoral degree (Psy.D.) in psychology. Practicing psychologists also need to be licensed or certified. Students planning to become a clinical psychologist generally complete a one-year internship that is part of the doctoral program. For such clinical psychologists, practical work and examinations take the place of a dissertation.

After obtaining a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, the pain psychology candidate can complete an APA accredited post doctoral fellowship in chronic pain. To gain admission to a doctoral degree program, an applicant may be required to have a master’s degree in psychology. Other programs may accept applicants with a bachelor’s degree and a major in psychology.

Licensing and Certification

Practicing psychologists require a license or certification in most states, and psychologists in private practice must be licensed in all states. Requirements to obtain a license vary from state to state and by the type of position. In most cases, a clinical and counseling psychologist is required to obtain a doctoral degree in psychology, complete an internship of one to two years and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.

Many states require continuing education courses to meet licensing requirements. Individuals interested in learning about state requirements can obtain information from the Association of State and Provincial Licensing Boards. Licensing typically requires pre or post doctoral supervised experience, an internship and/or a residency program.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

To become a pain psychologist an individual should have the sharp analytical skills necessary to examine information and draw logical conclusions. They should use strong communication and people skills in listening to patients and talking to them. Pain psychologists should be able to interpret body language, facial expressions and social interactions to help assess a patient’s attitudes. It helps for a pain psychologist to use problem solving skills when dealing with patients.

What is the Salary and Job Outlook for Pain Psychologists?

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, clinical psychologists earned an average of $69,280 or $33.31 per hour in 2012, with the highest pay in New York at $92,580. The BLS prediction for growth in the field is 12 percent between 2012 and 2022, the average rate for all professions. Job prospects are expected to be best for those with a doctoral degree in an applied specialty.

Related Reading

Further Reading

References

  • Psychology Today – http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/less-pain-fewer-pills/201407/what-is-pain-psychologist
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Psychologists – http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
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