Everyday executive functioning in chronic pain: Specific deficits in working memory and emotion control, predicted by mood, medications, and pain interference

Katharine S. Baker, Stephen Gibson, Nellie Georgiou-Karistianis, Robert M. Roth, Melita J. Giummarra

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30 Citations (Scopus)


Objectives: People with chronic pain may experience impairments in high-level cognitive skills, particularly executive functions. Such impairments are not adequately measured in most clinical pain management settings yet could be a key influence on everyday functioning. We administered a well-validated, well-normed self-report measure to determine which aspects of executive functioning are compromised in the daily experience of patients with chronic pain, and whether these are associated with pain severity, medications, and mood.Materials and Methods: Sixty-three patients attending a multidisciplinary pain management clinic, and 66 pain-free age-matched and sex-matched controls, completed the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Adult version (BRIEF-A). The BRIEF-A measures 9 aspects of executive function: Inhibit, Shift, Emotional Control, Initiate, Self-Monitor, Working Memory, Plan/Organize, Task Monitor, and Organization of Materials. Patients completed a battery of mood and pain-related measures.Results: Profile analysis revealed that patients with chronic pain reported significantly greater overall executive function impairments than controls. The patients showed greatest impairments on Working Memory and Emotional Control subscales, with more than half scoring in the clinically elevated range. A significant proportion of the variance in these scores was explained by total medication detriment (but not opioids alone), negative emotional states, and pain interference. Pain intensity and duration were not strong predictors of reported executive dysfunction.Discussion: Multiple factors impact on self-reported executive problems in this population. Specific deficits in Working Memory and Emotional Control have implications for patient engagement with treatment, and retention of information provided in therapy. A screening tool like the BRIEF-A may be useful in pain management settings.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)673-680
Number of pages8
JournalThe Clinical Journal of Pain
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2016


  • chronic pain
  • neuropsychology
  • executive function
  • working memory
  • emotion control

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