What is The Biopsychosocial Approach? Can It Help My Pain?

by Ron Lieback November 13, 2020 5 min read

What is The Biopsychosocial Approach? Can It Help My Pain?

When researching the causes of back pain, you’ll discover many different theories of what’s contributing to your problem. However, one suggests that there is more to consider than just physical contributors, and this is where the “biopsychosocial approach” surfaces. 

Back pain is not one dimensional and the biopsychosocial model takes a more holistic approach to identify negative contributions to a physical condition. It takes into consideration a person’s overall condition— mentally, socially, and physically. The goal is to find the most effective pain treatment plan concerning an individual’s unique state. 

What is The Biopsychosocial Model

In 1977,Dr. George Engel proposed a health and illness model that disputed the belief saying health and disease treatments were limited to biomechanical approaches. His model would suggest that biological, psychological, and social aspects directly influenced a person’s overall health, including the perpetuation of back pain.

In other words, your physical condition is directly linked to thoughts, behavior, and emotions, not just biological factors. The model also proposes that when our situation in any of these categories is suffering, the others will too.

What do we mean by that? Well, let's first break down the Biopsychosocial model to help understand the key elements.

  • Bio (physical health): genetic vulnerability, neurochemistry, metabolic disorders, Injury, Illness, etc.
  • Psycho (mental health): self-esteem, coping skills, temperament, perceptions, etc.
  • Social (Environmental Influences): work, school, peer influences, culture, socio-economical status, etc.
Biopsychosocial Approach for pain

The biopsychosocial model directly links each area of our well-being to the other. If you are suffering from a biological issue, such as chronic pain, it can deteriorate your psychological state, which will, in turn, impact social aspects.

The same is true if you are dealing with psychological issues. Poor mental health can impact your social life and your biological conditions.

As an example, you may be dealing with stress or anxiety, which can impact your ability to sleep well at night, which is vital for our bodies' healing processes. These ailments may limit how much you are willing to interact with others.

The examples go on, but you get the idea. This biopsychosocial model suggests that improving conditions is a balancing act of many aspects of a person's life, not solely focusing on a single problem.

This approach is used for many conditions, including depression, addiction, disease, and wouldn’t you know, is a crucial element that is turning around back pain. 

What is the Biopsychosocial Approach to Pain Assessment?

Now that we have a basic understanding of the Biopsychosocial model, we can apply it to better understand back pain and how to treat it.

Many individuals who suffer from back pain have never experienced an injury that would trigger it. It just appears seemingly out of nowhere and gradually gets worse with time, even when the person is taking no part in any physical activities that would contribute to it.

In fact, a person with disc herniations or bone and joint degeneration such as spondylosis should not assume that these conditions will lead to back pain. Medical guidelines “strongly” discourage the use of MRI and X-ray in diagnosing back pain because they produce so many false alarms.  

The biopsychosocial approach looks at physical contributors and other, non-physical aspects that can negatively impact pain and disability. Stress, anxiety, social stressors, beliefs, emotions, and even culture can influence tissue deterioration and increase chronic pain.

What does the Biopsychosocial Approach think About Pain? 

The biopsychosocial model is unparalleled in providing a real understanding of pain because it looks to other contributors to chronic issues, not just injury. This concept produces the most therapeutic interdisciplinary pain management and functional restoration programs that provide the best results in pain reduction.

Anxiety, depression, and stress causers negatively influence a person's interpretation of pain and amplify sensory input. In many cases, chronic pain can begin seemingly out of nowhere when a significant event places an individual in a negative state of mind. 

You must also understand that stress and anxiety also reduce our ability to get the rest we need. A good night's sleep is essential for our bodies, especially the spine. Sleep deficits can be directly linked to the deterioration of spinal tissue, contributing to several major issues.

Functional restoration programs understand this and develop patient-specific regimens to remedy psychological and social issues to reduce back-pain more effectively.

This method's success shows itself in the findings of Tom G. Mayer and Robert J. Gatchel—those who developed functional restoration programs. 87% of the patients treated through restoration programs returned to work just two years after treatment, whereas only 41% returned through a no-treatment comparison group.

Not only that, the patients of the comparison group had roughly five-time-higher rates of continued visits to health care professionals, twice as many had additional spinal surgery, and they also had higher rates of recurrence and re-injury.

A Healthier Life Influences Your Overall State of Well Being 

It's important to remember that the biopsychosocial approach does not overlook the possibility that a physical injury contributes to back pain. But, it doesn't underwrite the fact that social and psychological aspects are contributing to the issue.

Instead of focusing solely on pain medications to treat back pain, you should use the biopsychosocial approach to positively influence other parts of your life. You should seek out ways to decrease stress and anxiety.

You should also not let go of positive social interactions and doing the things you enjoy. Of course, if you are injured, you may not be able to partake in certain activities, but it is still important to not cut yourself off from living happily.

To cope with pain, it's natural to go into hiding to try and rest. However, if you are cutting yourself off from the world, you can slip into a depression state, negatively influencing your condition.

self massage with backmate for pain

Concluding Thoughts 

The biopsychosocial model is an incredible tool to help understand and leverage the mind-body connection to reduce back pain. There is no universal solution, and the steps we take to improve our conditions will be unique for the individual. However, you can look for some dead giveaways of negative social and psychological issues that may influence your overall well being. 

Rather than subconsciously dwelling on issues, turn your attention inward and take care of what matters most. In just a few minutes of self-massage, you can down-regulate the nervous system and place the body on the path of recovery.

We must mention the importance of getting proper medical attention when it is necessary. But if you are limited because of your condition, you should still be looking for ways to help maintain a healthy state of living.

There are several ways you can reduce stress and tension without overexerting yourself. Meditation, light exercise, massage therapy, grounding, and using a Backmate to relax your muscles are all excellent ways to improve your mood. If you bring your mind to a state of peace and content, you will undoubtedly see an improvement in your condition.

Ron Lieback
Ron Lieback


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