When reading my health psychology textbook, I came across something called the operant approach to treating pain. Well, more correctly, the operant approach treats pain behaviors. It utilizes a system of rewards and extinction (ignoring unwanted behavior) to lessen a patient’s pain behaviors, such as complaining of pain, refusing to perform physical activity, etc.
In some ways, I can see how the operant approach is useful, for example when someone’s pain behaviors interfere with physical rehabilitation. The example given in the textbook involved a young girl who refused to put on a splint by displaying pain behavior and was “rewarded” for this behavior by attention from the nurses. The refusing to put on a splint of course interfered with her recovery. In this sense, I can see how ignoring pain behaviors and rewarding appropriate behavior, such as putting on the splint, can be helpful.
However, the operant approach has a risk that wasn’t mentioned in my textbook, in that pain behavior has a function other than getting secondary gains such as attention or getting out of unpleasant activities. Pain behavior, especially in people who have limited abilities – the patient in the example was three-years-old -, can signal to other people that the expectations set for them are too high. After all, initially at least, someone exhibits pain behavior because they are, oh duh, in pain, not because they want to get out of unpleasant activities or get attention. And, unlike cognitive or other behavioral approaches such as relaxation, it was not said that the operant approach actually reduces pain, which may however be assumed if the person stops communicating that they are in pain.