Time to get qualified in Pain Science?

Information and new findings about pain bombard us from all directions and keeping abreast of them is a major challenge. Another challenge is integrating this knowledge for clinical applications. While there are discipline-specific issues associated with pain and its management, we need to know about the broad field of pain if we are to work effectively in an interdisciplinary way.

A major problem is that pain has long been a neglected topic in undergraduate and post-graduate education for all health disciplines. Historically, there’s been little uniformity, let alone integration, in pain education across disciplines. The IASP has been trying to help by publishing recommended curricula and some universities are starting to think about it, at least for undergraduates (Fishman et al., 2013) – the University of South Australia, for example, includes over 80 hours of pain sciences in its undergraduate and post-graduate physiotherapy courses. There are also some excellent two, three and even five day professional development courses, for example those run by NOI group, but, for all of you who want to take it a step further, there is not that much around.

One exception to this is the Masters of Science in Medicine (Pain Management) and Masters of Medicine (Pain Management), run by the University of Sydney Medical School, ably led by Professor Michael Nicholas.  Michael is currently the Chair, of the IASP Educational Initiatives Working Group, he is also Director of the ADAPT multidisciplinary pain management programme at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.  He has a long and influential role in our current understanding of cognitive behavioural approaches to pain. He was one of my PhD supervisors, but seems to have recovered.

As part of BiM’s agenda to promote knowledge transfer in the pain sciences, we have asked Professor Nicholas for a grab, so that any of you out there who are interested in a formal qualification in Pain, can consider this.

Here’s Professor Nicholas –

Since I took over as Director of our post-graduate pain education programme in early 2012, I have become increasingly excited at what we are building and what we can offer. Here are some bullet points:

  • The course has just been endorsed by the IASP – the only online degree course to have been endorsed so far – testament to its quality and its connections with the IASP core curricula for pain
  • The courses are totally online, so you can participate from anywhere
  • It is for all health disciplines and encourages interdisciplinary practice, with all students participating in multidisciplinary discussion groups and projects based around case studies throughout the course – so it’s a lot of fun, but does require commitment and time
  • It explicitly integrates basic pain science with clinical practice in diverse settings, from children to older adults. Topics covered range from concepts of pain to pain epidemiology, pain mechanisms (including neuroimmune mechanisms of pain and chronicity), assessment of pain, pharmacokinetics, and the full gamut of evidence-based treatments
  • Neuroscience is well-represented, with contributions from Prof Phil Siddall, Dr Paul Wrigley, Prof Janet Keast, Dr Peregrine Osborne and Prof Herta Flor.  Duncan Sanders recently joined the team from Dr Mick Thacker’s group at King’s College London. There are many other internationally recognised clinicians and researchers as well who provide the content material
  • Students come from all over – Australasia, Asia, North America, Africa, and UK/Europe, and many have gone on to achieve leading roles in the pain field
  • It has been running since 1996, was the world’s first multidisciplinary online post-graduate pain course, and is continually updated  to reflect the progress in our understanding of pain and its management
  • You can graduate with a Graduate Diploma or a Masters from the University of Sydney.
  • We are currently taking enrollments for the 2014 intake.

grey Time to get qualified in Pain Science?You can find out more by emailing me – michael.nicholas@sydney.edu.au, or check us out on the web here


Fishman SM, Young HM, Lucas Arwood E, Chou R, Herr K, Murinson BB, Watt-Watson J, Carr DB, Gordon DB, Stevens BJ, Bakerjian D, Ballantyne JC, Courtenay M, Djukic M, Koebner IJ, Mongoven JM, Paice JA, Prasad R, Singh N, Sluka KA, St Marie B, & Strassels SA (2013). Core competencies for pain management: results of an interprofessional consensus summit. Pain Medicine, 14 (7), 971-81 PMID: 23577878


  1. John Quintner says:

    @ Lorimer. Yes, good things are happening in the area of pain education. However, knowledge transfer is only one part of the equation. The other part is equally important – how to engage with the person in pain in order to obtain quality outcomes for both the person-in-pain and the clinician. With this in aim in mind we are offering a 2-day inter-disciplinary “hands on” workshop for Health Professionals in Western Australia – “Making Sense of Pain”. For those who are interested, the next (second) workshop is scheduled for 7th-8th March 2014. Registration is now open and details can be obtained by visiting AOWA’s website: http://www.arthritiswa.org.au

  2. Very good idea. Far too many clinicians have opinions about their patients who have chronic pain conditions (CRPS/RSD for example) but their opinions are not based in any scientific knowledge. They make judgements such as, “the pain is all in your head”, but they know next to nothing about how the pain actually affects the brain. It is still the case in many universities (North America) that veterinary medicine students get more class time studying chronic pain than medical students do,

  3. Do you invite patients to speak about their pain
    experiences as part of the course?

  4. Would like to know more about the course and it’s credit validity …

  5. John Quintner says:

    Soula, if your question was directed at me, the answer is YES.

  6. Julie Johnston says:

    I attended the ‘Making Sense of Pain’ workshop that John Quintner refers to above, earlier this year. It provided an excellent combination of theory and practical elements, with a multidisciplinary focus. The presentations from Patients with pain histories provided an excellent opportunity to hear first-hand how those elements and the multidisciplinary approach works. Very glad I attended: it informs my practice and provides me with an excellent network of other health professionals with an interest in this area.

  7. I know your answer John Quintner, I was asking the NOI group. Does the course include patient stories. The ground work is important to hear I think.

  8. Thanks Lorimer

    There is one another long distance Masters in Pain Medicine at University of Santo Tomas, Philippines. This is conducted in collaboration with PMRI, University of Sydney, and meant for students from ASEAN countries. The link -> http://painmed.ust.edu.ph/ My fellow is in his first year of the course.

  9. I have done the Masters at Sydney Uni and it was fantastic it really helped me extend my knowledge base. In terms of undergrad from what I can tell UniSA leads the way in the amount of pain science while others are still sadly lacking. There is where NOI is definitely filling a gap. As a Physio most complete masters that lead to further recognisation professionally and this is what will stop some completing pain science study. It is certainly something the Australian Physio Association needs to look at to encourage more therapists to deepen their knowledge about pain, because we are kidding ourselves if we think the majority of us have got it right.

  10. John Quintner says:

    @ Lorimer. I raise this point with some trepidation, but over the last few years I have slowly come around to the opinion that the term “pain science” is an oxymoron. This point is exemplified by the recent futile attempts to re-badge the symptom (= chronic pain) as a disease in-and-of-itself (= chronic pain).

    If we still accept that the phenomenon we call “pain” is a unique lived experience, then it will resist all attempts to reduce it, or even contain it, within the Scientific Paradigm.

    Yes, I agree with Matt when he says “we are kidding ourselves if we think the majority of us have got it right.” What happens if the majority of us have got it wrong or only half-right?

  11. Alex Chisholm says:

    FYI– The University of Alberta, Canada, offers a 3 course, post graduate, multidisciplinary certificate in Pain Management. (On-line.) It is run by Dr Judith Hunter, who recently received the 2013 award for Excellence in Interprofessional Pain Education from the Canadian Pain Society.
    I am currently taking the first course, and must say has vastly expanded how I think about pain.

  12. I did the 2 weeks of short courses at Uni of Sydney / RNSH about 10 years ago and was absolutely inspired by them. The short courses covered a lot of the content but without formal assessment. That suited me at the time. Now I’m about to enrol in some select subjects in the course to udpate/broaden my knowledge and skills. I’m really looking forward to it.

  13. Katrina Evans says:

    I too have just completed the Masters of Science in Medicine in a Pain Management and thoroughly enjoyed the course. It has certainly changed the way I deal with all patients not just those with chronic pain. I really would encourage physios and other health professionals to consider expanding their working understanding of pain by undergoing further education in this field.

  14. Evanthis Raftopoulos, PT says:

    John, you raise a good point when you say that the term “pain science” is an oxymoron, in the sense that modern science has not been able to fully explain the emergence of the pain experience, same as other states of consciousness. It seems to me that there are major challenges for understanding pain states in the context of causation and falsifiability. However and even though science might never be able to objectify the ‘qualia’ of experiencing pain, giving up the term pain science might also mean giving up efforts of developing improved theoretical frameworks that might have to offer greater explanatory value for understanding the pain experience. I think that the anticipation of paradigm shifts might be an important motivator for many of us to remain engaged in the field of pain management.

    Regardless, I do remain a bit skeptical with the usefulness of certificates in pain science for the purpose of treating pain patients. I think that there is a gap between trying to understand and develop theories for the emergence of pain states, and actually “treating” (or should I say successfully interacting with) pain patients.

    Evan Raftopoulos, PT

  15. John Quintner says:

    Evanthis, I concede your various points. I can accept “pain science” if, and only if, it is a shorthand way of saying “we are studying the bodies of people in pain”. What has become apparent to me is that some neuroscientists and others in the pain world believe that they are studying a concrete “thing” called “pain”. Moreover, they have even attributed agentive properties to this reified entity. Chasing this “aporia” is to go around in circles! I rest my case.