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Chronic Pain Disrupts Concentration and Job Performance

Everyone experiences pain, but for some people, it is a constant companion. Low back pain from injury, joint pain from aging and arthritis, and cancer pain are just some of the kinds of chronic pain that are common and difficult to treat.

Doctor Bruce Dick, a pain researcher at the University of Alberta hospital in Edmonton, Canada, is interested in how the experience of pain can disrupt patients' lives. "One of the effects that we see over and over in clinical settings is that people will complain that it is so hard for them to function at work, to function in day to day tasks and even do things like read a novel because of how disruptive their pain has been."

To assess the extent of that disruption, Dick and his colleagues recruited patients from their pain clinic and had them perform memory and cognition tests while they had pain, and after they were treated for their complaints.

"What we were quite interested to find was that quite a significant proportion of the people in our study with pain had fairly marked cognitive disruption by pain, meaning their ability to concentrate and their function in day to day memory tasks was actually quite impaired," he reports. "Two-thirds of the population actually had impaired scores. One-third of our group had significantly impaired scores in a number of different measures."

One of the most impaired functions was the ability to multi-task, that is, to do several things at once. People experiencing chronic pain reported they couldn't concentrate at work, and were so distracted they couldn't remember simple things like a familiar phone number.

Dick says this study adds to the growing body of research that is helping doctors and policy makers understand pain and its effects, but admits, "I think we have a long way to go before we as health care providers and as a society really recognize the costs that pain has on an individual, and I think, thereby on society."

Dick says he'd next like to use brain-imaging tools to examine what parts of the brain are undergoing changes when a person feels pain. His current research is published in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia.