Michael Sullivan

Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Health

Tier 1 - 2007-04-01
Renewed: 2014-03-01
McGill University


Research involves

Understanding how certain thoughts or thought patterns can slow or even stop a patient from healing after major surgery, illness or injury.

Research relevance

New ways to help patients fully recover from common injuries and illnesses, ranging from cancer to neck and back pain, as well as from other conditions that often cause suffering even after successful medical treatment.

Recovering From Illness and Injury: Is It All In Your Head?

What would it be like to spend your entire life in pain? For some people, that may seem hard to imagine, but the fact is many of us know, or know of, people who have never fully recovered from accidents, and despite years of treatment, remain in constant pain. In truth, the problem is bigger than most people realize: one in five people do not fully recover from many types of injuries, surgeries and illnesses.

Our bodies are exposed to significant stress and strain every day, and usually, we bounce back. Even if we become injured, undergo invasive procedures such as surgery, or get ill, we can usually expect to recover, often with little or no complication.

But not everyone. As Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Health, Dr. Michael Sullivan is trying to understand why. Research has found that 20 per cent of people with back or neck injuries have persistent symptoms of pain and disability. Many become permanently disabled. One in five people who have had joint surgery also continue to experience high levels of pain and disability, as do a similar proportion of people who have been treated for cancer. For many individuals, problems persist even though medical indicators suggest that the condition should be resolved.

Sullivan's earlier research suggests that a patient's psychology might be the cause. People who react to their symptoms with a sense of heightened alarm or fear do not recover well. People who focus excessively on their symptoms have similar problems, as do those who are or who become depressed. All are at high risk for not recovering fully following injury, surgery or illness.

Sullivan's research will try to understand how these psychological variables may contribute to poor recovery. Ultimately, he aims to develop treatments to maximize the likelihood of full recovery in individuals at risk for adverse health outcomes. If successful, these new treatments would prevent costly repeat visits, save millions of dollars in health-care costs, and ensure Canadians do not continue suffer from illness and injury that should have been cured years ago.