Objective. To identify whether the biopsychosocial framework of illness has overcome the limitations of the biomedical model of disease when applied in the practice of pain medicine.
Design. Critical review of the literature concerning the application of biopsychosocial models to the praxis of pain medicine and the concepts of living systems.
Results. The biopsychosocial model of illness, formulated by Engel in 1977, has generated the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) definition of pain, two major conceptual frameworks in pain medicine, and three putative explanatory models for pain. However, in the absence of a theory that seeks to understand the lived experience of pain as an emergent and unpredictable phenomenon, these progeny of the biopsychosocial model have been caught in circular argument and have been unable to overcome biomedical reductionism or the perpetuation of body–mind dualism. In particular, the implication that pain can be a “thing” separate and distinct from the body bears little relationship to the lived experience of pain. Such marginalizing results when an observer attempts to reduce the experience of the pain of another person.
Conclusions. The self-referentiality of living systems (through their qualities of autopoiesis, noncentrality and negentropy) sees pain “emerge” in unpredictable ways that defy any lineal reduction of the lived experience to any particular “thing.” Pain therefore constitutes an aporia, a space and presence that defies us access to its secrets. We suggest a project in which pain may be apprehended in the clinical encounter, through the engagement of two autonomous self-referential beings in the intersubjective or so-called third space, from which new therapeutic possibilities can arise.