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Cultural Differences and Pain Management

An osteopath’s experience in Southwestern Alaska with Native Americans provides a perspective on how cultural differences may confound and complicate pain management.
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The issue of adequate pain management in private offices and hospitals has become a topic of major debate as healthcare makes a push toward better control of patient pain. In addition to our pharmacological arsenal, as osteopathic physicians, we have unique training that allows us to help alleviate patient pain with the use of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM). However, com-plicating this picture is the issue of cultural understanding of pain.1 With America’s reputation as a “melting pot” of vast cultural diversity in the people that live in our communities, it is challenging but necessary for physicians to incorporate cultural understanding into all patient encounters.

The significant influence that cultural identity has on a patient’s interpretation of health and illness is well documented.2,3 It has been implied that cultural background can affect the “pain experience,” including how the pain is assessed, how it is treated, and whether there is satisfaction with the treatment outcome.4,5 There is also an indication that the emotional, psychological, physiological, and spiritual interpretation of the pain experience can, in part, be culturally determined.6-9

Example of Patient-Physician Communication with Cultural Differences

Southwestern Alaska is home to a unique patient population, approximately 69% of which are Native American, and is served by the Kanakanak hospital in affiliation with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC).10 The maj-ority of these Native Americans recognize affiliation with the Yup’ik people and have a set of cultural mores and traditions distinct from that of “mainstream” Americans. This manifests a unique group of challenges for the osteopathic physician treating with OMM. During my time at Kanakanak, I treated a total of seven Yup’ik patients with OMM and worked to adapt textbook osteopathic styles of treatment, including counter strain (CS) and facilitated positional release (FPR), to this situation.11

The Yup’ik culture differs from the traditional American physician training populace, making it difficult for the non-Yup’ik practitioner to elicit a traditional history of present illnesses (HPI) during an interview. The numerical rating scale quantifying pain as 0-10 is problematic as Inuit adults have difficulty relating pain through numerical scale due to intuitive differences from other American ethnicities. In their case, a high priority is placed on spatial intelligence and observational skills.12 Additionally, cultural attitudes toward pain generally require a greater degree of stoicism in the face of hardship.13 Using a modified Wong-Baker FACES scale, also known as The Northern Pain Scale (NPS), can improve the communication of pain between physician and patient, as this scale depicts Native faces that incorporate portions of Native culture and observational intelligence into the pain scale.12 Telling a Yup'ik patient to make a comparison of the current pain with pain that has been previously experienced as “the worst pain of your life” to equate a 10 has a cultural disconnect because the numbers are divorced from their traditional learning styles without a picture representation.

During my time doing patient interviews, Yup’ik patients had difficulty comparing previous, treated pain on this scale and, when utilizing the numeric scale, patients often reported current pain (which may have been a 10 out of 10) as >7/10, regardless of the location or type of pain reported. Patients also had difficulty reporting decreased pain symptoms as a lessening number. Affect was generally not congruent with reported pain levels and patients often appeared comfortable or in only mild discomfort. Miscommunication based on the misunderstanding of stated pain ultimately leads to a discrepancy in pain treatment in the Yup’ik population compared to the mainstream population; it puts the culturally unfamiliar practitioner in the position of having to interpret patient pain without practiced aids.

Without a pain scale that can be understood by both patient and doctor, traditional methods of determining treatment success must be adapted. The implications for treatment with OMM can be seen in the application of CS and FPR, where treatment relies heavily upon patient report of discomfort and improvement. The patients that I treated set their initial pain high (>7/10) and during positioning were unable to distinguish on a numeric scale any change in discomfort. Instead of being able to report whether the pain had become a higher number, a lower number, or a percentage of the original pain, the patients reported that the pain was still present. However, when asked explicitly if the pain was exactly the same, the patients would report that the pain was not the same but then could not explain the difference. No quantifiable change could be elicited.

While using FPR and CS, I relied primarily on tissue texture changes and muscle softening to determine the end point for treatment. The results of these encounters are listed in the table below. At the time of the treatment, only two patients reported any improvement in pain, with the other five reporting no change. However, subsequently two additional patients reported relief from the treatment when encountered informally the next day.

Last updated on: January 28, 2012
First published on: June 1, 2010