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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ashley Jacobson

Tips for Managing Functional Pain

What is Functional Pain?

Everyone has experienced pain at some point during their life. Most of us have either stubbed a toe or maybe had a bruise or even a broken bone. When experiencing pain from an injury, the typical protocol includes resting, icing, taking medication and eventually that injury will heal and you will feel better. However, there are times that people experience neurological pain symptoms when their bodies are actually healthy and not injured. In these circumstances, the pain is called functional pain. Functional pain symptoms can be relatively short or last for a long time and can also range in severity. Some common symptoms include muscle shaking (that present like a headache or stomach pain), tingling, numbness, or an inability to walk or see. There are times when these symptoms can disrupt all areas of one’s life including school, work, sleep, and eating. Moreover, the pain can cause an individual to avoid things that they used to enjoy and to get out of their everyday routines.

Many people may have never heard of functional pain, however, it is more common than you might think and is experienced by many children and teens. Furthermore, when it is present, it can be stressful for the entire family. For parents it can feel especially frustrating because there is not an identifiable medical cause. Functional pain happens when our brain and body get stuck in a cycle of not communicating smoothly with each other and as a result send inaccurate messages (i.e., feeling discomfort in the stomach). The process where the brain and the body get stuck can happen for many different reasons. The good news is that functional pain is a treatable condition. Most people are able to learn how to get their symptoms under control and get back to their normal lives; although, it can take work and some time for the brain and body connection to get unstuck.

Treatment for Functional Pain

The treatment for functional pain typically includes a varied approach. One of the best things to do at the onset is changing the environment. It is encouraged to create or get back to a regular schedule and routine. Participating in therapy regularly up is an essential part in helping to treat functional pain. In therapy, children, parents, and adults will learn relaxation strategies and symptom management skills to help calm the body. Learning to understand that your body is safe and that you are still able to participate in all of the activities that you enjoy, all while experiencing symptoms is a key factor. Additionally, getting support from family and friends along the way is crucial.

Some things that parents can do to provide support to their child that is dealing with pain include encouraging your child to manage their pain independently. Parents can do this by praising your child when they use skills to manage their pain, and encourage normal daily activities (e.g. school, sports, play). When parents check-in with their children, it is important to be mindful of the words they are using. Parents should avoid using words like "pain", "headache", "hurt," which will actually put emphasis on the pain. Instead, parents should use words such as "comfort", "do", "act", "need anything". In addition to therapy, people often benefit from physical therapy, occupational therapy, integrative medicine (e.g. massage therapy), and having consistent scheduled check-ins with your primary care physician.


Things that make functional pain worse:

  • Focusing on the pain, constantly thinking about it.

  • Experiencing negative thoughts about the pain (i.e., this will never go away)

  • Getting out of a routine

  • Other people/family members constantly focusing on the pain

The Ice Pack Method

The Ice Pack method is a skill that you can teach your child to start using today to help with managing functional pain symptoms, and involves the use of counterstimulation. Counterstimulation occurs when you shift your body's focus on other senses instead of focusing on the feeling of pain. One of the most common methods of doing this include using a heat pack or an ice pack. Below are the steps to effectively use counterstimulation:

The main goal with placing the ice pack on a different area is to shift focus. For example, if you were to place the ice pack to the area where you are experiencing pain, then you are going to draw more attention to that specific area. So, by placing it in a different area, your brain is going to be forced to focused on that area rather than the pain area. In addition to using ice packs, counterstimulation can be done by engaging your other senses such as smell and taste.

If you are experiencing functional pain or have a child that is experiencing functional pain or have been told by doctor that your pain is "all in your head," just know that the pain you are experiencing is real. If pain symptoms are interfering with everyday life and you feel stuck, therapy can be helpful to help your brain and body connection get unstuck.


At Balanced Minds Psychology & Wellness we specialized in assisting children, teens, and young adults with navigating life’s challenges, including managing pain symptoms.. To learn more about me and the services I provide, checkout my profile. If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation.


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