Interdisciplinary Pain Management Programs. What should you be looking for?

For many people, living with pain is a way of life. Living a full and active life however may seem impossible. It is actually possible to increase your level of functioning and quality life while reducing your sense of suffering. The key, like anything in life, is to have the right skills, support, and direction. That is a tall order in the health care arena these days. Rarely if ever do we find ourselves faced with the opportunity to have time to talk with our health care providers about our state of being. There are some exceptions. Fortunately for people with pain there is a means to build a relationship with a health care provider and their staff that can, if you are willing to take an active role, help you move from a patient to an active person. The road is not an easy one, but the rewards far outweigh any temporary issues.

While medicine has made remarkable advances to eradicate some diseases, cure others and extend life, chronic pain is still one they are struggling to understand and improve. The good news is they have made advances in helping people to manage their pain. Interdisciplinary Pain Programs are designed to help a person with pain become part of the treatment team and take an active role in regaining control of his or her life in spite of the pain. The programs are focused on the total person, not just the pain.

What is Interdisciplinary Pain Management?

It involves a team of health care providers working directly with the person with pain with a variety of measurement, interventions, and strategies for self-management designed to offer a complete program from assessment, treatment, communication, education, and follow up. The treatment is never focused on just the pain, but it takes a holistic approach meaning who you are and how you feel is as much a part of shaping your treatment as your physical self.

The Team is made up of:

  • “Patient” (person with pain)
  • Significant others (family, friends, neighbors)
  • Physicians
  • Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners
  • Nurses
  • Psychologists
  • Physical therapists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Recreational therapists
  • Vocational counselors
  • Pharmacists
  • Nutritionists/dieticians
  • Social workers
  • Support staff
  • Volunteers
  • Others

Team members may vary from one program to the next, but the underlying goal remains the same; help you live a full life. You might have noticed that the “patient” is at the top of the list. Without your willingness to take an active role in the program, nothing that the program has to offer will be helpful since there is currently no cure. Your efforts are key to success!

Your team shares in providing you with a well-balanced approach to treatment. They all have specific roles that complement each other to provide better care. It is the team approach working directly with the “patient” that makes this type of program effective. Team members each have personal responsibilities that, when blended together, make for a treatment option that allows the patient to make progress.

Benefits of a well functioning team:

In a typical health care environment, you may have a primary care provider, a physical therapist, a counselor, and other specialists that you see. In many cases, while they communicate occasionally, they do not come face to face as a team to focus on you. It is in an interdisciplinary pain program that a team on a regular basis will review your care and discuss it with you. They will look at the goals that have been set, what you have accomplished, where you are having difficulties and evaluate what the next best steps are for YOU.

Based on your progress they will be able to determine which team members may need to alter their approach, other areas that might need added attention, and personal communication with you as part of that team.

The team needs to have the ability to work together in an environment where there is mutual respect and a collaborative atmosphere. Freedom to express new ideas and share insights is key to the team working together for the common good of those in the program.

The bottom line is that the treatment should focus on the whole person, not a body part or symptom, and to empower the person with pain as well as their family, or caregiver.

Interdisciplinary Pain Program:

There are a number of practices and facilities that are called pain clinics. While they may address specific pain problems, they do not offer the complete package needed to help a person regain control of their lives. It is important that a program provide you with the physical emotional, and psychological components you need. Perhaps the most important first step is to meet the team and make sure that you feel comfortable with them. If you are not comfortable with the team, it will be much more difficult to make progress. When looking for a pain program you need to keep in the following things:

Qualities of a Well-Functioning Interdisciplinary Pain Team:

  • Share the same beliefs and mission
  • The program is patient and family centered
  • Work together for common, agreed upon goals
  • Develop treatment plans based on individual needs
  • Mutual respect and open communication as a team
  • Frequent communication between primary provider and team members
  • Shared goal of improvement for each person in the program is ongoing and the responsibility of all team members
  • Monitoring of progress toward goal achievement
  • Feedback about progress and performance is provided to you, caregivers, significant others, and primary care providers
  • Formal follow-up is scheduled

Adapted from: Interdisciplinary Pain Management: Dennis Turk, et al. Task Force Report developed for American Pain Society. 2009.


When you are being considered for an interdisciplinary pain program you will see various staff members who will evaluate different areas of your health and ability. This is where the treatment goals and expected outcomes will be identified.

The Importance of Communication

Lines of communication must remain open for everyone involved. That means in addition to the treatment team you are working within the program, your primary provider, insurance company, and your family should be involved at some level. This is necessary to the overall objectives of the program.

Although there are common goals for the entire team, each team member may focus on specific issues to ensure your goals of improving the quality of your life, reducing your sense of suffering, and increasing your level of functioning both physically and emotionally. For example, a physical therapist may be focusing on upper body strength, flexibility, and endurance with the general goal to improve physical function. A psychologist may focus on increasing communication skills, recognizing emotions, and increasing self-esteem with the goal of improving your overall outlook on your future and well-being. A nurse may address components of a healthy lifestyle, while a physician may attempt to find the medications that will work best for you.

Communication between the team members on a regular basis is a critical part of the overall effectiveness of the efforts. Regular discussions between everyone involved can help you point out areas where more effort is needed or adjustments need to be made to your personal program. All interactions should take into account any language and cultural sensitivities.

Using ACPA Communication Tools can help you communicate well with your team.


Fear of the unknown can be a controlling factor. For a person with pain entering a pain program can be overwhelming. A “blueprint” of the program from beginning to end clearly defined and what is expected of you after the program is completed should be provided at the beginning.

When you are an active part of the program you are watched and evaluated closely to track progress and identify problem areas. However, when you leave a program that is no longer the case. You need to understand that while successful during the program, you may still have some level of pain, still need medications and in some case additional treatments once you complete the program. You will have to take responsibility for continuing any exercise program, practicing the use of skills taught during the program, and communicating appropriately with significant others including health care providers. Pain programs do not take away your pain or take you back in time before the pain began. Life can be improved greatly by completing a pain program, but you may still have limitations and need to be seen on a regular basis by your primary care provider. The goal of the program is to improve the quality of your life, increase your level of functioning and reduce your sense of suffering.

Program Outcomes

There has been increased evidence that an interdisciplinary pain management program can:

  • Reduce dependence on health care
  • Increase ability to return to work for many
  • Improve quality of life
  • Increase function
  • Reduce pain levels
  • Lessen senses of suffering
  • Provide the skills to manage pain on a daily bases


Hearing that you may have to live with pain sounds like an impossible task. And, it can be if not given the right direction, intervention and skills to move from the mindset of a disabled patient back to a functional person. Living with pain is possible and having the opportunity to take an active part in an interdisciplinary pain program provides the best opportunity to accomplish that in a cost effective and timely manner.