Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 1: Hope, Despair, and Chronic Pain

The first 2016 issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry has arrived! Over the coming weeks, we will feature article highlights from a selection of the newest research published at our journal. To access the full issue, click here.

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In this week’s blog, we visit Eaves, Nichter, and Ritenbaugh’s article “Ways of Hoping: Navigating the Paradox of Hope and Despair in Chronic Pain” (accessible here.) The authors carried out a series of qualitative interviews with patients experiencing temporomandibular disorders (TMDs) throughout a clinical trial where these patients received traditional Chinese medical treatments (TCM.) The authors’ research with 44 patients in the clinical trial highlight the paradoxical nature of hope: that is, a tendency to both place faith in the possible efficacy of a treatment, while cautiously gauging these expectations to avoid feelings of despair should treatment fail to produce a positive result. The authors argue that hope serves as a complex placebo, in that while not itself being an active pharmaceutical or other intervention, it can have significant implications for a patients’ course of care.

Following a review of methodology and the theoretical basis of medical “hope,” the authors present a diverse array of examples from their interviews that illustrate the range of expectations, beliefs, and experiences of the chronic pain patients. For some patients, hope is secular: related to realistic treatment goals (such as a small reduction in overall pain), or to utopian ideas about the treatment’s future potential for other patients. For others, hope is an expression of spiritual faith, or a form of almost religious belief in the effectiveness of bioscientific breakthroughs, or even a belief that biomedicine has failed the patient and a remedy for their pain can only be found in other medical systems (like TCM.) Other patients described an embodied response to the treatment that, the authors comment, underscores the relationship between placebo and (psycho)somatic healing.

In all these examples, however, what is perennially apparent is the patients’ tenuous balancing of hope with tempered expectations for a cure. However it comes to be framed, hope both enhances and complicates the treatment of chronic pain. In some cases, hope acts as a “positive” placebo in that it bolsters the patients’ faith or trust in the potential (or even observable) efficacy of the treatment. In other instances, hope can prove to be a harmful placebo in that it may promise beneficial change and render any failing of an experimental treatment more troubling for the patient. Because hope offers such conflicting possibilities for patients’ satisfaction and trust in a treatment modality, it is essential for both anthropologists and clinicians to consider the cultural, cognitive, embodied, and religious frameworks in which a patient conceptualizes and subsequently approaches treatment.

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