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Scandinavian Journal of Pain

Official Journal of the Scandinavian Association for the Study of Pain

Editor-in-Chief: Breivik, Harald

CiteScore 2017: 0.84

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2017: 0.401
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2017: 0.452

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Volume 13, Issue 1


A meta-analysis of fear-avoidance and pain intensity: The paradox of chronic pain

Emily B. Kroska
Published Online: 2016-10-01 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjpain.2016.06.011



The fear-avoidance model of chronic pain has established avoidance as a predictor of negative outcomes in chronic pain patients. Avoidance, or deliberate attempts to suppress or prevent unwanted experiences (e.g., pain), has been studied extensively, with multiple reviews implicating this behavior as a predictor of disability, physical disuse, and depression. Despite hundreds of studies examining the associations between different components of this model (i.e., catastrophizing, fear, avoidance, depression), the association between fear-avoidance and pain intensity has remained unclear. The present study seeks to clarify this association across samples.


The present analyses synthesize the literature (articles from PsycInfo, PubMed, and ProQuest) to determine if fear-avoidance and pain intensity are consistently correlated across studies, samples, and measures. Eligible studies measured pain intensity and fear-avoidance cross-sectionally in chronic pain patients. The search resulted in 118 studies eligible for inclusion. A random-effects model was used to estimate the weighted mean effect size. Comprehensive Meta-Analysis software was used for all analyses. Moderation analyses elucidate the variables that affect the strength of this association. Meta-regression and meta-ANOVA analyses were conducted to examine moderating variables. Moderator variables include demographic characteristics, pain characteristics, study characteristics, and national cultural characteristics (using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions). Publication bias was examined using the funnel plot and the p-curve.


Results indicate a small-to-moderate positive association between fear-avoidance and pain intensity. The results were stable across characteristics of the sample, including mean age, gender distribution, marital status, and duration of pain. Moderation analyses indicate that the measures utilized and cultural differences affect the strength of this association. Weaker effect sizes were observed for studies that utilized measures of experiential avoidance when compared to studies that utilized pain-specific fear-avoidance measures. Studies that utilized multiple measures of fear-avoidance had stronger effect sizes than studies that utilized a single measure of fear-avoidance. Three of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions moderated the association, including Power Distance Index, Individualism versus Collectivism, and Indulgence versus Restraint.


The present meta-analysis synthesizes the results from studies examining the association between fear-avoidance and pain intensity among individuals with chronic pain. The positive association indicates that those with increased fear-avoidance have higher pain intensity, and those with higher pain intensity have increased fear-avoidance. Findings indicate that cultural differences and measurement instruments are important to consider in understanding the variables that affect this association. The significant cultural variations may indicate that it is important to consider the function of avoidance behavior in different cultures in an effort to better understand each patient’s cultural beliefs, as well as how these beliefs are related to pain and associated coping strategies.


The results from the current meta-analysis can be used to inform interventions for patients with chronic pain. In particular, those with more intense pain or increased fear-avoidance should be targeted for prevention and intervention work. Within the intervention itself, avoidance should be undermined and established as an ineffective strategy to manage pain in an effort to prevent disability, depression, and physical deconditioning.

Keywords: Chronic pain; Avoidance; Meta-analysis; Pain intensity; Fear-avoidance

References marked with an asterisk indicate studies included in the meta-analysis.

About the article

Received: 2016-03-24

Revised: 2016-06-24

Accepted: 2016-06-27

Published Online: 2016-10-01

Published in Print: 2016-10-01

Ethical issues: Informed consent was not required, and approval by an ethics board was not obtained, as only aggregated secondary data was examined. Study protocol is not registered.

Conflict of interest: No conflict of interest.

Citation Information: Scandinavian Journal of Pain, Volume 13, Issue 1, Pages 43–58, ISSN (Online) 1877-8879, ISSN (Print) 1877-8860, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjpain.2016.06.011.

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