you are my sunshine

Pain is not a “thing”


ResearchBlogging.org
I’m reading some fascinating books at the moment. I’m such a pain geek I take pain books away with me on holiday! Anyway, the two books to hit me between the eyeballs recently are The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom (published 2010), and The Story of Pain by Joanna Bourke (published 2014). What makes both of these books fascinating is that these both look at the history of pain and pain management, and explore the “what it is like” to be in pain. Reading them, I’m forcefully reminded that the ways in which we conceptualise pain is an incredibly social process. Social in that while we have discovered much about the neurobiology underpinning our experience of pain in the last 40 years or so, the ways in which we understand pain as it is experienced (and pain is always an experience) depend on prevailing attitudes towards suffering.

I’ve written before that pain and suffering are not the same thing. I’ve also pointed out that the language we use is one way to convey the “what it is like” to have pain, and so expressions like “cutting, burning pain” or “stabbing pain” or “grinding pain” are metaphoric descriptions that use visual imagery possibly to elicit activation of mirror neurones so that the listener can begin to experience the “what it is like” to have pain.

The reason this is important when we talk about pain and pain behaviour is that the things we do when we’re sore are framed within our own culture, and reflect what we know and understand about what-it-is-like to be experiencing pain. This changes over time, and Joanna Bourke gives excerpts from two different editions of the same textbook:

  1. The jolting of a carriage is insupportable to him… As the evil increased, micturition becomes more and more frequent and distressing; the pain following the act is very severe – patients writhe with their bodies, and grind their teeth in agony (1852 edition)
  2. The jolting of a carriage increases his symptoms… As the stone increases in size, micturition becomes more frequent and distressing, and the pain or uneasiness at the end of the penis becomes more constant and severe (1881 edition)

Bourke points out that earlier editions focus more on the suffering of the patient, as opposed to the increase of “symptoms”, the “evil” becomes “the stone”, and “the act” of micturition is turned into “pain in the penis”. The pain itself is even downgraded to “pain or uneasiness”, Furthermore, patients no longer “writhe with their bodies and grind their teeth in agony”, but penises simply hurt more (p.86). Pain, over time, and within our socio-cultural heritage, has moved from being readily acknowledged as distressing, an evil, and agonising (all very emotive words), to a far less emotive process of a “stone” and “uneasiness” at the end of the penis.

Our responses to other people who express their pain is also shaped by social processes. Here’s another excerpt from Bourke’s book in which a physician was attending “a spoiled…society woman” who was “accustomed to enjoy to the full the pleasures of life” and developed heart pain. The doctor says “My lady, you are suffering from a pain which you are right in supposing is due to your heart. I might give you something which would relieve the pain, but I don’t propose to do so. The pain is a warning to you to curtail your activities and live a different life.” (p. 128) So much for sympathy! This was the 1930’s.

In times when life was short, hard and often painful, and people lived close to one another, were exhorted to be mindful of their afterlife (because this, it was promised, would be far better than their current life – if, and only if, they were pious and quietly accepted their suffering as a gift from God, sent to test them, or to punish them). Even children were advised to remember that God gave pain, therefore they should ask for “grace to submit to his will”, continue with their chores without complaining, and “draw strength from the ‘Ominpotent arm’ of Christ, anticipating future bliss in paradise.”

I think we’re inclined to forget that how we demonstrate to others that we are hurting is intimately connected to social processes we’ve been immersed in since birth. This is why the paper “Impact of pain behaviors on evaluations of warmth and competence” is a very good one, impeccably carried out with wonderful experimental design, but must still be seen in our current social context. The study examined individual’s interpretations of pain behaviours, using a wireframe animation (generated by computer but based on an individual firstly walking normally, then walking with evident pain behaviour). The observers indicated that the recording of the individual walking with pain behaviours was more depressed, less fit, and not as competent as the recording of the individual walking normally. This suggests that when people observe individuals demonstrating pain behaviours, even without any other cues, our social impression is that they are less competent and we are more likely to withdraw from them – or, and I’m extrapolating a bit here, if we’re in the business of helping people, we may believe they are especially vulnerable and need our help.

However: in our society, bombarded as we are with advertisements for a pain-free existence, putting forward the notion that we should never have to experience pain, I think this study shows us very clearly what-it-is-like to be socially rejected on the basis of not being “perfect”. I wonder what the results would have been if it could have been carried out in the 1880’s.

I wonder too, when we’ll begin to look at health providers levels of empathy and catastrophising (Thanks to Lisa for this idea!). If we’re inclined to be highly empathic, perhaps to the point of unhelpfully over-identifying with our patient’s suffering (where we become distressed because our patients are distressed), and if we also catastrophise or think the worst, I think we’ll over-interpret the pain behaviour of others and attempt to compensate by treating the person so that our own distress is reduced. And because this is a social process, and we’re probably not aware of it even occurring, perhaps we’ll be completely oblivious to the adverse effects of doing so. I’d love to see the study carried out by Ashton-James and colleagues repeated in a sample of health professionals – that would be very interesting indeed.

Ashton-James, C., Richardson, D., Williams, A., Bianchi-Berthouze, N., & Dekker, P. (2014). Impact of pain behaviors on evaluations of warmth and competence PAIN® DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2014.09.031

A pierless morning

Fabulous FREE pain education resource from Cardiff University


It’s amazing what you find on the interwebs. Thanks to Pete Moore from Pain Toolkit -you can find him on Twitter as @paintoolkit2 – I’ve been introduced to Cardiff University’s amazing Pain Community Centre. This is a site developed by pain educators and clinicians to provide authoritative and practical information on a wide range of pain topics. FREE CPD, a chance to chat amongst others with the same inclination, clear video recordings, a list of events in the UK, and a set of “Pain  Toolkits” on topics such as migraine, central post-stroke pain, general management of osteoarthritic pain and so on. This is by far the most comprehensive and well-organised site that I’ve stumbled on in a long time. Well worth the visit (and you’ll probably lose some hours as well!). Oh, and Pain Community Centre is also on Twitter as @paincommunity

solving the problems of the world

…but I thought a new knee would fix my pain!


ResearchBlogging.org
Working in an orthopaedic surgery department is quite enlightening. Along with discussions about ceramic vs metal implants and cartilage regeneration (I work with a team of researchers looking at how to create replacement cartilage), the topic of what counts as a surgical success in knee surgery also comes up from time to time. Knee joint replacement isn’t as successful as hip joint replacement for a number of reasons including the complex nature of the joint, the way the joint capsule is disrupted during surgery, and the knee can apparently feel quite different from the original knee.

What this means is there can be quite a mismatch of expectations for people who believe very strongly that there should be no pain and they should have a completely normal knee joint after surgery. In fact, in the NZ National Joint Registry, the main reason recorded for knee joint revision is pain.

Naturally, the problem of pain after surgery is something surgeons and researchers are also interested in. Many studies have shown psychological factors such as catastrophising (thinking the worst) and low mood are associated with poorer outcomes (Riddle, Wade. Jiranek, & Kong, 2010; Roth, Tripp, Harrison, Sullivan & Carson, 2007; Shelby, Somers, Keefe, Pells, Dixon & Blumenthal, 2008).  The outcomes looked at so far include length of stay in hospital at the time of surgery, analgesia use during surgery, increased disability after surgery and revision rates.

Now, one solution to this problem could be simply not performing joint replacement surgery in people who are depressed and tend to think the worst. The problem is that two of the strongest predictors for looking for treatment are – you guessed it: low mood and catastrophising (and disability). Another solution is to provide intervention after surgery to target the people who tend to become fearful – perhaps an enhanced level of physiotherapy for this group, while the less vulnerable may even require less. Some studies have also looked at giving better education about what the surgery entails and the expected outcomes, and doing this before the person undergoes surgery, while another study has looked at providing a pain coping skills training course prior to surgery (Riddle, Wade, Jiranek & Kong, 2011). The outcomes from this last approach were promising, although it was a very small sample size, and the follow-up was for only two months.

There are a number of problems with implementing any of these approaches in clinical practice, at least in the system I’m most familiar with (NZ):

  1. Many orthopaedic surgeons still discount the importance of psychological factors, and consider the information they provide completely adequate for presurgical preparation
  2. It’s difficult to give someone different or special treatment based on psychological factors within a usual clinical setting without also inadvertently giving people a label that may change how they are responded to
  3. Any additional intervention will have an up-front cost (not good for cost accountants!)
  4. These treatments need specially trained clinicians who understand the measures being used, the rationale for treatment, and the type of treatment needed – and because these are psychological factors and surgery is conducted in a “physical” hospital, this is unfamiliar territory for many
  5. Patients may not be very comfortable with a treatment that focuses on thoughts, emotions and pain

It seems to me, and from the results from a recent study looking at analgesic use after surgery, that an argument simply based on the cost of failing to go ahead with effective management of psychosocial factors would make sense. Here’s the detail:

Fuzier, Serres, Bourrel, Palmaro, Montastruc and Lapeyre-Mestre (2014) conducted a large study of patients in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France. They examined the medical records of all 1939 patients who had knee arthroplasty, and compared the drug use (what was dispensed) at four times – 12 months before surgery, 2 months before surgery, and 10 months before and after the knee surgery.  What they found was an increase in analgesic, antineuropathic and opioid drug use in the 12 months after surgery. The actual percentage of patients requiring more medication is astonishing: 47% of people needed more analgesia, 8.6% needed more antineuropathic medications, and 5.6% needed more opioids. That’s a whole lot of drugs!

These researchers also analysed a number of other variables associated with the medication changes, and made some more understandable findings:

  • people having total knee replacement surgery were at a greater risk of using more medication than those having unicompartmental surgery (half a joint)
  • people with high levels of preoperative pain along with “psychiatric vulnerability” were at greater risk of having increased neuropathic medications prescribed
  • but older people were less likely to be prescribed additional medications

Unfortunately, this study didn’t identify the particular “psychiatric vulnerabilities” of the patients who participated – from the paper it looks like data was extracted from clinical records, so psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and so on are the likely culprits. We don’t therefore know whether catastrophising contributed to the medication use – but given the results from at least 20 studies I have in my database, I think it’s probably likely.

Medications are not cheap. While they’re quick to prescribe, dispense and take, they cost not only in fiscal terms (which is a serious consideration, nevertheless), but also in side effects – and more importantly, in loss of personal locus of control. What I mean by this is that these are people who haven’t been given the opportunity to develop pain self management skills. They will continue to catastrophise, and perhaps even more so after surgery because their fears have been confirmed. Maybe it’s cheaper and more humane to bite the bullet and begin giving people appropriate psychosocial treatment before, during and after surgery.

Fuzier, R., Serres, I., Bourrel, R., Palmaro, A., Montastruc, J., & Lapeyre-Mestre, M. (2014). Analgesic drug consumption increases after knee arthroplasty: A pharmacoepidemiological study investigating postoperative pain PAIN®, 155 (7), 1339-1345 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2014.04.010

Riddle, D. L., Keefe, F. J., Nay, W. T., McKee, D., Attarian, D. E., & Jensen, M. P. (2011). Pain coping skills training for patients with elevated pain catastrophizing who are scheduled for knee arthroplasty: a quasi-experimental study. Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 92(6), 859-865.

Riddle, D. L., Wade, J. B., Jiranek, W. A., & Kong, X. (2010). Preoperative pain catastrophizing predicts pain outcome after knee arthroplasty. Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research, 468(3), 798-806.

Roth, M. L., Tripp, D. A., Harrison, M. H., Sullivan, M., & Carson, P. (2007). Demographic and psychosocial predictors of acute perioperative pain for total knee arthroplasty. Pain Research & Management, 12(3), 185-194.

Shelby, Rebecca A., Somers, Tamara J., Keefe, Francis J., Pells, Jennifer J., Dixon, Kim E., & Blumenthal, James A. (2008). Domain specific self-efficacy mediates the impact of pain catastrophizing on pain and disability in overweight and obese osteoarthritis patients. Journal of Pain, 9(10), 912-919.

nestled

I’m so easily distr….oooh look! Shiny!


ResearchBlogging.org
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a simple way to help people avoid focusing on their pain, allowing them to just watch a TV programme or something, and not be bothered by some painful procedure? This is a dream for those health professionals who have to carry out painful procedures like take blood, drill teeth, change dressings, stretch body parts and so on. It’s also an area of great interest for researchers, because studying how distraction affects our experience of pain shows us a great deal about how our brains detect threat, process incoming information, encourage an adaptive response and so on. It’s probably also a really interesting area for people who like to inflict pain on others – in the name of science.

While the form of pain is different in experimental pain studies compared with chronic pain, we have learned a great deal about “psychosocial” factors through the many and varied experiments carried out. This study is yet another, but this time asked people with chronic pain to participate in a study that incorporated mechanical temporal summation, a distraction task, thermal threshold and tolerance testing, pressure threshold and tolerance testing, cuff pressure testing, followed finally by a conditioned pain modulation test. That’s a lot of pain!

The distraction test involved asking the participants to squeeze a handgrip dynamometer with their dominant hand. Two readings were averaged, and the participants told to “maintain a grip strength as uniformly as possible”, using their nondominant hand, with the maximal grip strength aiming to reach 20% of the dominant hand. This while the participants were undergoing a mechanical dot probe test.

In addition to these painful experiments, participants also completed a number of psychometric questionnaires: The Brief Pain Inventory, The Beck Depression Inventory, the Pain Anxiety Symptoms Scale and the Pain Catastrophising Scale. All well-known measures often used in chronic pain management.

After some statistical wizardry, what did these researchers find?

Well, very interestingly indeed, what they found was that people who tended to score highly on the PCS obtained a greater effect (reduction of reported pain intensity) on the temporal summation test than those people with lower PCS scores.

This is interesting for several reasons. The first is that temporal summation of pain was greater in the people who catastrophise – and this is a group of people who usually fare quite poorly in clinical situations including both acute and chronic pain. What I mean by this is that people who tend to catastrophise often become more distressed, have difficulty distracting themselves from their pain, and can “think the worst”and  therefore become more disabled by their pain. This applies in many different situations such as after orthopaedic trauma (Williamson, Gabbe, Cameron, Edwards, Richardson et al, 2009), after knee joint replacement (Riddle, Wade, Jiranek & Kong, 2010), low back pain (Sieben, Vlaeyen, Tuerlinckx and Portegijs, 2002) and many more. In this situation, however, they seem to fare better when they’re being distracted by doing something else – even something as simple and boring as squeezing a dynamometer.

The authors of this paper suggest that their experiment may have uncovered an important aspect of catastrophising – that when people are specifically tasked with something to distract their attention away from the painful stimulus, catastrophising has less effect. This could mean that an important aspect of catastrophising is the degree to which a stimulus grabs attention (or should I say, the degree to which people who catastrophise have their attention grabbed by something “interesting” or “threatening”).

It also suggests that perhaps one way of helping people who tend to catastrophise would be to facilitate distraction when they have to undergo painful procedures. Perhaps even use distraction as an effective means to reduce their overall pain experience, even in chronic pain – although this is pretty speculative.

Of course there are many if’s and buts about this study. The kind of painful stimuli used in this study is very different from that experienced by people with chronic pain in daily life.  These findings differ from some others in the literature, and it’s difficult to know how or why – perhaps the pain intensity was different, perhaps people who have to sustain attention over a long period of time such as for this study have some strange learning effects going on, and perhaps there are some other physiological effects of these kinds of acute pain tests. We don’t know.

What is really interesting, though, is that for once catastrophising had a benefit – and maybe we can learn more about how to use this benefit for people who otherwise struggle with their pain.

 

Riddle, D. L., Wade, J. B., Jiranek, W. A., & Kong, X. (2010). Preoperative pain catastrophizing predicts pain outcome after knee arthroplasty. Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research, 468(3), 798-806.

Schreiber, K., Campbell, C., Martel, M., Greenbaum, S., Wasan, A., Borsook, D., Jamison, R., & Edwards, R. (2014). Distraction Analgesia in Chronic Pain Patients Anesthesiology DOI: 10.1097/ALN.0000000000000465

Sieben, J. M., Vlaeyen, J. W., Tuerlinckx, S., & Portegijs, P. J. (2002). Pain-related fear in acute low back pain: the first two weeks of a new episode. European Journal of Pain: Ejp., 6(3), 229-237.

Williamson, Owen D, Gabbe, Belinda J, Cameron, Peter A, Edwards, Elton R, Richardson, Martin D, & Group, on behalf of the Victorian Orthopaedic Trauma Outcome Registry Project. (2009). Predictors of Moderate or Severe Pain 6 Months After Orthopaedic Injury: A Prospective Cohort Study. Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma, 23(2), 139-144 110.1097/BOT.1090b1013e3181962e3181929.

textured gold

Numbers on a scale: How bad did you say your pain was?


ResearchBlogging.org
Have you ever been asked to give your pain rating on a scale of 0 – 10 (where 0 = no pain at all and 10 = most extreme pain you can imagine)? Have you ever tried to work out whether today’s pain is worse than yesterdays? What does a pain rating tell us?

I’ve struggled to work out how “bad” my pain is many times, is it the pain intensity that makes it troublesome? Or, in the case of a migraine, is it the quality of the pain that makes it bad (or the nausea?). Health professionals often ask people to summarise their pain experience into a form that (hopefully) we can all understand – but just what does a pain that’s around 4/10 on a VAS actually mean?

Why do we use rating scales?

We know that pain is subjective, just like taste and colour. While we might be able to agree that both of us are tasting something we call “banana”, we don’t know whether the banana taste I experience is the same as the banana taste you experience. We can see that both of us are eating the same fruit, but we don’t know how our body/brain processes that experience. Instead we assume, or infer, that we’re experiencing it in a similar way because of the similarities in context.

With pain, the situation is even more complex: we can’t determine whether the pain I feel is similar to the pain another person feels, and we don’t even have the benefit of similar “tissue damage” in the case of a migraine headache.

So, we have to infer something about the experience through some sort of common mechanism. Mostly that’s language. We hope that someone can understand that a higher number means greater pain. We hope the person can recognise what “no pain” feels like and where it might be represented on a scale. We ask the person to remember their current pain intensity, translate it into a number that in turn represents to us some kind of common understanding of what pain given that number might feel like.

Of course, there are problems with numbers on a scale. For a child who doesn’t understand the association between numbers on a scale and intensity, we use the “Faces” scale. For a person with cognitive problems (brain injury, stroke, dementia), we observe their behaviour (and hope we can translate well enough). For a person who doesn’t speak the same language as us, we might try a sliding scale with green at the bottom and red at the top, to represent increasing intensity – appealing, perhaps, to a common understanding that green = OK and red = not OK.

Worse than the difficulty translating from experience to a number is the common misunderstanding that pain severity alone represents the “what it is like” to experience pain. We know personally that it doesn’t – after all, who has had a toothache that represents “Oh no, I need a root canal and that’s going to cost a bomb!”, or “Ouch! That lemon juice in the paper cut on my finger is really annoying”, or “I feel so sick, this migraine is horrible”.

Hopefully most health professionals are taught that to use just one measure of pain is not enough. It’s important to also include other aspects of pain such as quality, how it affects function (interference), how confident we are to deal with life despite the pain (self efficacy).

So we use rating scales as a shorthand way to get to understand a tiny bit of what it is like to have pain. But the Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) is used many times to estimate whether “this person’s pain is so bad they need medication”, or “this person’s pain means we can’t expect her to help move herself from the ambulance trolley to the wheelchair”. The VAS can be used in many ways it shouldn’t be.

Studying the relationship between VAS pain intensity and disability (SF36)

The study by Boonstra, Schiphorst Preuper, Balk & Stewart (in press) aimed to identify cut-off points on the VAS to establish “mild”, “moderate” and “severe” using three different statistical approaches.  They measured pain using a Verbal Rating Scale (mild, moderate and severe), the VAS, and used several scales from the SF36 (a measure of general health quality) to establish interference from pain.

What they found was that while “mild” pain was fairly equally determined (less than or equal to 3.5), and correlated with both severity and function, when it came to “moderate” and “severe” pain, there was far less agreement. In fact, this group found that individuals could verbally rate their pain as “moderate” but at the same time report severe levels of interference. This means verbal descriptors under-represent the impact of pain on performance.

They also found that the cut-off point between “mild” and “moderate” pain in terms of interference with activity ranged between 2.5 – 4.5, and for moderate to severe pain between 4.5 – 7.4.  The associations between pain intensity and disability or interference were low to moderate and as a result these authors argue that it is “questionable” to translate VAS scores into verbal descriptors, because the different instruments measure different things.

What does this tell us?

It should be easy by now to tell that although we use numbers as a shorthand for “how bad is your pain?” in reality, they don’t directly translate the “what it is like” to have pain. Neither does the VAS correlate well with measures of disability or interference from pain. While people with mild pain might be also experiencing only a little disability, when the numbers go up the relationship between intensity and function disappear.

I think we might be trying to quantify an experience as a quick way to make clinical decisions. Really, when we ask “how bad is your pain”, depending on the context, we may be asking “do you need pain relief?”, “do you need help to move?”, “did my treatment help?” or any myriad other questions. The trouble is in research, we can’t do statistics nearly as easily on a “yes” or “really bad” or “it didn’t change much” answer. But how many of us work routinely in research settings?

I wonder whether it’s worth asking ourselves: do I need to ask for a pain rating, or should I ask a more useful question? And take the time to listen to the answer.

 

Anne M. Boonstra, Henrica R. Schiphorst Preuper, Gerlof A. Balk, & Roy E.Stewart (2014). Cut-off points for mild, moderate and severe pain on the VAS for pain for patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain Pain DOI: http://dx..org/10.1016/j.pain.2014.09.014

rush hour

Men and women: we’re different.


Men are outnumbered by women when it comes to having chronic pain. I don’t know the actual figures, but in almost every epidemiological study of chronic pain, it’s women who are more likely to have chronic pain .  Despite this, women can have a hard time getting appropriate pain management – receiving instead a range of treatments for anxiety and depression (Bernardes, Costa & Carvalho, 2013).  This can mean it’s more difficult for women to recover from their pain, or to return to better functioning, but at the same time it can make the whole experience of having chronic pain rather more isolating for men.

Notions of masculinity are fairly well-defined in popular media. I used Google to search for a definition of “what is masculinity”, and this is what I found:

masculinity

So imagine if you’re a man and you have chronic pain. You feel exhausted, every time you move it hurts, you don’t sleep well, you have to ask for help to do things, and on top of that when you go to the medical centre to find out what’s going on, you’re confronted by a waiting room full of mothers with preschool children, stacks of aging women’s magazines, posters of breast examination and cervical smear testing, and even the reception staff are all women!

Ahlsen, Menghoel and Solbraekke from University of Oslo in Norway have published three really interesting papers looking at the narratives of men seeking treatment for muscle pain. They point out that because chronic pain is not often linked to anything that can be identified in physical imaging, or examination, people with it can feel they’re labelled as weak, sick, whiners, lazy or faking (Ahlsen, Menghoel & Solbraekke, 2012, p. 316).  These are not the terms we usually associate with being a man!

What is it like for men to attend a pain management programme? What are they looking for from being involved in rehabilitation? Is it different from what women are looking for? All good questions because the answers will directly influence how well we as treatment providers can  meet their needs. Can we do better?

In the first study by this group of researchers, Ahlsen, Menghoel and Sobraekke (2012) identify from the outset that men attending a pain management rehabilitation centre found their experience of participating quite different from their earlier treatment experiences. While early treatment had left these men feeling isolated and abandoned, being in a chronic pain specialist service was experienced as “the best place” and for these men “finally receiving medical based expert treatment”.  This makes me wonder what it was about the early treatment that left these men feeling so alone, and furthermore, what it was about a specialist service that made the difference.

These researchers found three broad types of narrative: “rebuilding a self”, “being comforted” and “being connected” to describe how men participating in this treatment felt.

Rebuilding a self – Initially, many men experience significant loss of social role and respect. By being surrounded by experts who accompany him as he learns more about his pain and begins to engage in exercises to “rebuild” his strength and health, he can rebuild an identity without the feelings of shame that he can otherwise have.

Being comforted – Some men “just get by”, keep on keeping on, perhaps engaging in short bursts of treatment that rarely have long-term impact. Men attending a comprehensive programme that includes psychological help, can feel it is acceptable to talk about what it is like to have chronic pain but not be able to grieve. Being able to talk about these otherwise hidden effects of pain provides comfort and support.

Being connected – Some men experience being “pushed from pillar to post” as each health professional has trouble clearly identifying what is going on. For some men this feels like no-one really knows what is going on, and attending a pain management centre becomes the best way to put all the pieces of the pain puzzle together, connecting each part to the whole, to make meaning of what is going on. By being connected again, he can solve his need for support, the company of others, and make progress.

In a second study by Ahlsen, Menghoel and Sobraekke (2012), stories men tell of having chronic pain and trying to make sense of what is happening is analysed using a narrative theoretical framework. This approach to analysis views what people say as attempts to make meaning on their experiences by telling them as stories, interpreting their experiences by looking back to the past, and projecting into the future as we do when we tell stories.

In this study, men describe working very hard in demanding environments, having difficulty with physical limitations, struggling with what is happening in their personal lives but trying to explain these events in terms of “objective facts” such as heredity, physical events, and the demands on them – but relatively little about what it is like to be men with pain. In other words, the narrative of being a man with pain is to try to “be rational”, to “be self-controlled”, to “be a man”. Because, of course, big boys don’t cry.

At the same time, we can interpret, as Ahlsen, Menghoel and Sobraekke (2012) do, that men actually DO feel vulnerability, loss, distress – but have difficulty being able to express this within the kind of stories we expect men to tell, and the kinds of roles men are thought to play in our society.

The lucky last in this trio of papers about men and pain, Ahlsen, Bondevik, Mengshoel and Solbraekke (2014)  present a further study of gender in rehabilitation, and argue that women’s stories demonstrate the ways they are trying to “transcend” their former identity, moving from experiences of chaos towards becoming more autonomous, while men’s stories tend more towards attempts to “find a solution”, often more closely aligned to a medical context in which they saw themselves with a future that depends on receiving health care.

This is at odds with the way we see male and female healthcare seeking. Most times, we see more women than men seeking treatment, with men being stoic (perhaps even stubborn?!), and trying to manage their health alone without help.

Why is this important?

So much of health research especially in chronic pain, is viewed in terms of biomedical and psychological frames. The social is rather less studied. Gender identities are both biological but also socially determined. The ways we view men and women depend on our own constructs of what it means to be a man or a woman in our own sociocultural setting.

Most of our healthcare culture, particularly a biomedical one, is focused on ways to “get rid of pain” or the source of the pain, to help people “return to normal”, to “get better”. As these authors put it, to enact a “restitution” story where people go through chaos, make sense of it all, put it all back together and get on with life, independent once more ( Ahlsen, Bondevik, Mengshoel and Solbraekke, 2014, p. 361).

From the studies these researchers have conducted, it seems that men tend more towards a slightly different story – I seek help, it gets fixed, and I go off – but I continue to have need for health professional support.  Maybe men in particular need to have the legitimisation of their pain through getting a label from a health professional to help them justify their decision to reshape their ideal of masculinity. The men in these studies seem to need to find a way to get “independence and control” that is so important in our society’s version of masculinity.

What does it mean for us?

I can’t pretend that reading these studies is easy. I’m a woman, I live in a world in which being a woman or a man is infused with all manner of expectations, and because I’m embedded in it, I don’t always notice that this is what’s happening. Culture is like that: it’s about what feels “normal” – until you’re confronted with something that doesn’t fit.

What I think it means for me is to learn much more about ways we can help each man learn to reframe what it means to be masculine in his own mind.  Is it OK for a man to ask for help? Is it OK for a man to need support? What is it like for a man to identify as someone who can’t “do it all”? To have a body that doesn’t “do what it should”?

Can we help men put their own puzzle of pain together? Do we need to look at the language we use? Perhaps part of the current explosion in “pain neurophysiology education” is one way that men can feel that their pain is understandable, that it’s not their personal weakness but it’s just how their body functions? Instead of messy emotional stuff, perhaps learning about the mechanics of pain neurobiology is a little like learning about a complex computer or machine.

Do we need to think about the language of rehabilitation too? What of the focus, for men, on how their bodies function? Should we think more about gently encouraging men to look at accommodating a different body, maybe reduce the talk of a “battle” against pain, “overcoming” pain, the narratives of “fighting with” or “winning”?

Against a pain problem that revs itself UP when people begin pushing against it, do we need to move towards a more Zen notion of fluidity, power expressed as going with, flowing – perhaps a more appropriate model of martial arts like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or even Aikido?

 

Ahlsen, B., Bondevik, H., Mengshoel, A., & Solbrække, K. (2014). (Un)doing gender in a rehabilitation context: a narrative analysis of gender and self in stories of chronic muscle pain Disability and Rehabilitation, 36 (5), 359-366 DOI: 10.3109/09638288.2013.793750

Ahlsen, Birgitte, Mengshoel, Anne M., & Solbraekke, Kari N. (2012). Troubled bodies-troubled men: A narrative analysis of men’s stories of chronic muscle pain. Disability and Rehabilitation: An International, Multidisciplinary Journal, 34(21), 1765-1773.

Ahlsen, Birgitte, Mengshoel, Anne Marit, & Solbraekke, Kari Nyheim. (2012). Shelter from the storm; men with chronic pain and narratives from the rehabilitation clinic. Patient Education and Counseling, 89(2), 316-320.

Bernardes, Sonia F., Costa, Margarida, & Carvalho, Helena. (2013). Engendering pain management practices: The role of physician sex on chronic low-back pain assessment and treatment prescriptions. The Journal of Pain, 14(9), 931-940.

spring popped in today

“If I do that, I’ll be in more pain and won’t sleep and …” Tampa Scale of Kinesiophobia reformulated


ResearchBlogging.org
The fear avoidance (or pain-related fear and avoidance) model has given the clinical pain management community much to think about. Based on the “phobia” paradigm, the model has helped clinicians think about ways to engage people with pain in activities that they’ve previously avoided by identifying exactly what it is the person is concerned about, then using a graded exposure approach so individuals learn that they can do these things while dealing with the associated anxiety they’ve developed.

I’ve had some problems with the usual measure of kinesiophobia: the Tampa Scale of Kinesiophobia (TSK). I have usually seen people many years after the onset of pain, and by then they’ve mainly heard the explanations for their back pain (or other pain), and can recite the “hurt does not equal harm” mantra off by heart. On the TSK they don’t score all that highly. Yet they’re very disabled, avoid doing anything that might exacerbate their pain and remain extremely distressed. They know what to say on an assessment, but in the real world they’re no better off.

The TSK has been used for many years now as a good measure of kinesiophobia. Usually scores of above 45 (from a possible 68) suggest that the person has beliefs that their pain represents ongoing damage (Somatic focus) and that they should avoid doing anything that provokes pain (Activity avoidance).  High scores have been associated with a wide range of negative outcomes including pain intensity, disability, distress – and in a wide range of individuals including people with chronic low back pain, acute low back pain, osteoarthritic knees and hips, shoulder pain and so on.  Originally the measure was believed to tap into the idea that pain represents damage or harm, and also to measure the belief that activities should be avoided.

In people who have been well ‘educated’ in pain neurophysiology, intellectually they know that their pain isn’t about what goes on in the tissues, so they may score fairly low on the Somatic scale of the TSK. Yet they avoid – and when asked about this, they say things like “I know if I do things it’s going to increase my pain and I’ll have a really bad night’s sleep” or “I’ll have a rotten day” or “I’ll be grumpy with my kids”. It’s not the potential damage that’s the problem – instead the problem is really about the way they see that pain will get in the way of what they want to do.

While I know this from taking time with individual patients, as far as I know there haven’t been many studies examining the meaning of pain in those people who DO score highly on the TSK, so I was very glad to read Bunzli, Smith, Watkins and colleagues (2014) paper still in preprint on a mixed methods study looking at exactly this.

What did they do?

Participants with chronic low back pain were recruited from a larger study.  Thirty six people were interviewed one month after they had completed the TSK, and asked “Tell me your pain story”, and then more detailed examination of exactly what individuals believed about their pain was conducted. The interviews were conducted by Samantha Bunzli, a PhD candidate and physiotherapist, as part of her PhD studies.

What did they find?

Firstly, many people in this study believed that pain during activity will damage them. Participants used words and explanations they had often heard from other health professionals to substantiate their belief that their backs are vulnerable, their bodies prone to damage, that they were inevitably going to deteriorate. Interestingly (but not unexpectedly) people with health training who were purposively sampled to be part of this study, also held strong beliefs that their backs were structurally damaged and without a diagnosis that fit with their beliefs about back pain, they were worried that pain was equal to harm.

Secondly, people believed that doing things that hurt would increase their suffering and result in greater interference or functional loss. Things like “I know if I do the wrong movement, the pain will get worse… Cos I know how bad the pain is and I don’t want to aggravate that area because I know that will cause the pain.”  Some felt helpless in the face of pain, and because of this avoided it. Others pointed out that if they had an exacerbation it would mean ongoing disruption to life for a long time or over many different aspects of life such as sleep, work, family life.

Quantitative analysis

Participants with high harm beliefs were selected into one group, and their TSK responses analysed. This group scored more highly on the Somatic focus scale than the participants who described pain avoidance beliefs (functional loss, suffering). Interestingly, people with beliefs that pain represented interference/functional loss didn’t score more highly on the Activity avoidance subscale.

What does this mean?

Most interventions using high TSK scores as their primary guide to inclusion involve graded exposure to reduce fear, and lots of behavioural testing and personalised information to help reconceptualise their pain as no longer representing damage. This won’t work for people who are fully aware their pain doesn’t mean damage, but instead are concerned about the broader  effect of pain on their lives. To me this suggests that the greater problem for these people is helping to increase their self-efficacy for dealing with pain fluctuations. Personally I like the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach for helping this group of people.

To be able to nonjudgementally notice pain, then remain on track to do what is highly valued to me seems a good way for this group of people to deal with their avoidance of pain intensity fluctuations. As Crombez. Eccleston, Van Damme, Vlaeyen and Karoly (2012) say pain is “more than a sign of bodily harm; it is an obstacle to be coped with in the daily pursuit of valued activities and goals that matter” (p.477).  In my study, people who cope well with pain negotiate this delicate balance between exacerbating pain vs remaining engaged in important occupations by using “flexible persistence”. This is a process of planning and managing what is important at that time and in that context by using the entire repertoire of coping strategies people possess.

I can’t quite support Bunzli and colleague’s suggestion that “it is important that interventions not only target beliefs about pain, but also focus on the development of pain control strategies that are linked to individuals functional goals.” Well – actually I can to a point. Interventions must target beliefs and link interventions and strategies to functional (occupational, please!) goals – but to try to control pain is like holding onto water in your cupped hands. Yes, you can do it, but it’s frustrating, you don’t get much for the effort you put in, and it means you can’t do much else at the time. Control isn’t the answer to me: learning to accept and be willing to make room for pain might be a more useful approach.

A great study by Samantha Bunzli and co – and as a nearly-PhD myself, I love that she’s asked an interesting question, discovered some important new stuff, and got it out there where we can learn about it.

Bunzli, S., Smith, A., Watkins, R., Schütze, R., & O’Sullivan, P. (2014). “What Do People who Score Highly on the Tampa Scale of Kinesiophobia Really Believe? A Mixed Methods Investigation in People with Chronic Non Specific Low Back Pain The Clinical Journal of Pain DOI: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000143

Crombez, Geert, Eccleston, Christopher, Van Damme, Stefaan, Vlaeyen, Johan W., & Karoly, Paul. (2012). Fear-avoidance model of chronic pain: The next generation. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 28(6), 475-483.

pink

How does chronic pain management work? A self concept hypothesis


In my previous post looking at how chronic pain management works, I put forward the hypothesis that

“What DOES change is [people's] self efficacy or belief that they CAN do what’s important in their lives – by hook or by crook. And even more importantly, they have something to DO that’s important to them. Maybe something that hasn’t been studied in sufficient detail is what a person wants to be able to do, what’s their motivation, what are their valued occupations? That’s a hypothesis about therapeutic change I think we need to ponder.”

Later in the comments I mentioned the idea of renegotiating self concept – that part of learning to live well with chronic pain is the process of integrating the reality of on-going pain and associated limitations within their “understanding of how he or she responds in situations and the roles he or she expects to fulfil” (Baumeister, 1997; Christiansen, 1999).  Self-concept is a predictive process where the knowledge a person has about his or her personality traits, roles, and relationships guides their actions so that they present consistently across social and private contexts.

So self concept is “the person I am”. Several authors have described chronic pain as a “biographical disruption” that forces individuals to reconsider their past, present and future, often creating a discrepancy between the self-concept before pain and the current self (Asbring, 2001; Richardson, Ong, & Sim, 2006; Wilson, 2007). To accommodate chronic pain within the self concept means people need to incorporate an understanding of the new current self in a way that can retain as much of the past self as possible, without placing unsustainable demands on the future self. People who cope well with pain develop a self-concept in which the effect of pain is assimilated without compromising critical values in their lives, even though it may influence how these are enacted.

What this means is that people who cope well with pain identify the important values they hold (parts of self), let go of old parts of themselves they can’t continue to achieve, and find ways of ensuring the parts of themselves that they do value very highly can still be done.

John Quintner suggested that programmes that help people cope with their pain provide people with hope. I agree. I think that by helping people see that they can still retain essential parts of their concept of who they are, they can begin to see that life CAN continue to have some of the good things they really value.

Some of the mechanisms that I think might be involved in helping people renegotiate their self concept are:

  • engaging in occupations (activities, roles that are individual and unique to them) as part of learning to make sense of their pain
  • this helps to make their pain less threatening, more predictable
  • and thus they’re more able to account for the effects of pain on what they want to do

People don’t only learn by doing things themselves, they also learn by seeing other people do things. This means that when people see a famous athlete or actor identifying with something like depression, for example, people with depression can gain hope that they too can still achieve despite their depression. In chronic pain management, people attending a group programme watch one another do things that they have also struggled with – and this provides both a model as to how this can be done, but also something to aspire to. This increases self efficacy because instead of seeing how “experts” (ie professionals) suggest they do things, they see people “like me” doing things.

If learning to live well with pain is partly about developing a new sense of self, then acceptance also involves letting go of things that can no longer be sustained (the past self) while holding onto important aspects of this self that can continue in a sustainable way into the future. This is something we all need to learn to do as we grow older. Usually it’s a gradual process, and most of us are sad to recognise that we’re aging, but also positive in that we’re moving towards new things that continue to add to our self concept. For people who develop chronic pain, it can be a profound change.

Letting go of the desire to “go back to normal” is incredibly hard. It won’t happen if a new opportunity to “go back to normal” keeps on being offered. And this is the tragedy of repeated attempts to find a complete cure, because it stops people being able to let go of things that may be unsustainable, keeps them in a sort of stasis while their life is focused on pain. And for many types of pain, there is no complete cure – even very successful interventions rarely completely abolish pain.

Hope, for people with chronic pain, involves more than taking all the pain away. It needs also to restore their confidence that they can be the person they want to be, to fit their self concept.  This is why return to work for people with chronic pain needs to address issues of the person feeling unreliable (“how can I go to work if I can’t go every day because of my pain?” “who would employ me when I can’t work the way I used to?”), of being able to present themselves as an asset to an employer, where chronic pain isn’t a liability but can be an asset. Because most people want to be seen as competent, reliable, and contributing within a work environment – and until they can see how these things can be achieved despite their pain, it’s going to be hard for them to convince an employer.

I think that learning to be flexible in terms of how to go about achieving something important might be the biggest factor in how chronic pain management programmes work. And I think the process is about renegotiating a self concept that allows this flexibility to occur, and maybe by helping people identify the values that underpin important occupations we might be able to support them to find new ways to express those values.

Asbring, Pia. (2001). Chronic illness – a disruption in life: identity-transformation among women with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 34(3), 312-319. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.2001.01767.x

Baumeister, Roy F. (1997). Identity, self-concept, and self-esteem: The self lost and found. Hogan, Robert [Ed], 681-710.

Christiansen, C. H. (1999). Defining lives: occupation as identity: an essay on competence, coherence, and the creation of meaning. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 53(6), 547-558.

Richardson, Jane C., Ong, Bie Nio, & Sim, Julius. (2006). Is chronic widespread pain biographically disruptive? Social Science & Medicine, 63(6), 1573-1585. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.03.040

Wilson, S. (2007). ‘When you have children, you’re obliged to live’1: motherhood, chronic illness and biographical disruption Sociology of Health & Illness, 29 (4), 610-626 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2007.01008.x

sugar coating

How does chronic pain management work? A hypothesis to ponder


There have been increasing calls for clinicians and researchers to move away from using grouped results from randomised controlled studies because these fail to distinguish between those people who do really well and those who do not. Eminent researchers like Amanda Williams, Chris Eccleston and Steven Morley have said it’s time to move away from “black box” RCTs in chronic pain, and begin to use more sophisticated methodologies to examine not only outcomes but processes during therapy (Williams, Eccleston & Morley, 2012).  While early studies comparing CBT-approaches to chronic pain vs waiting list controls demonstrated moderate to large effects, over time the results have shown smaller effects as these approaches are compared with other active treatments.

The magic ingredients in an effective CBT-approach to self managing chronic pain are not all that clear. There are some people suggesting that it’s all about providing good neurophysiology information about pain mechanisms to people with chronic pain (Moseley, Nicholas & Hodges, 2004; Louw, Diener, Butler & Puentedura, 2013) and this does seem to be part of the picture – but is it enough? Education doesn’t have the greatest of effects on behaviour in any other area of health (think of diets, smoking, exercise, immunisation), and while there’s no doubt we need to reduce the threat value of pain by helping people understand the old message “hurt does not equal harm” (a message I know has been around since the early days of Fordyce and Sternbach), this doesn’t always produce results.

There are other people who argue that it’s all about exercise and that exercise is not only good for people with chronic pain, but also as a “preventative” for those with acute pain who are at risk of develop chronic pain (for example in early whiplash) but this has recently been challenged by the findings from PROMISE, a study by Michaleff, Maher, Lin, Rebbeck, Jull, Latimer et al, (2014).  Nevertheless, exercise does seem to be a common ingredient in most self management programmes.

Pacing, as I indicated a couple of posts ago, has been included in many pain management programmes, but has not been examined in-depth – and even defining pacing has been pretty difficult.

Similarly for most of the approaches included in chronic pain self management: lots of “logical” reasons to include components, but when we take a closer look at them, there’s either very little information on the coping strategy itself, or the effect sizes are equivocal.

Nevertheless, for people with chronic pain who haven’t responded to any other form of treatment, these programmes are a life-line. Remember, that for many people it has taken 4 years to get referred to a pain management programme, and the chances of finding good medication options (or interventional procedures) that abolish pain are pretty slim.

“ Of all treatment modalities reviewed, the best evidence for pain reduction averages roughly 30% in about half of treated patients … do not always occur with concurrent improvement in function … These results suggest that none of the most commonly prescribed treatment regimens are, by themselves, sufficient to eliminate pain & to have a major effect on physical & emotional function in most patients with chronic pain.”Turk DC, Wilson HD, Cahana A: “Treatment of Chronic Non-Cancer Pain”, The Lancet 2011; 377: 2226–35 (25.6.11)

So, we have programmes that are offered to people who have reached the end of their treatment line, but we don’t really know much about what works and for whom. Yet there is an effect on people, small though it may be, and there’s some evidence that people who do what the programmes suggest do better than those who don’t (Nicholas, Asghari, Corbett, Smeets, Wood, Overton et al, 2012).

Two things occur to me:

  1. We need to use more sophisticated ways to study process and subgroup analysis of people in chronic pain self management programmes. I think this might include using single subject experimental design. This design was used in some of the early work by Vlaeyen and colleagues looking at response to graded exposure for pain-related fear and avoidance (Vlaeyen, de Jong, Geilen, Heuts and van Breukelen, (2001), and Asenlof, Denison & Lindberg (2005). It allows clinicians and patients to really monitor the effect of various parts of treatment, and can be a very sophisticated way for “real life” clinical work to be evaluated.  Another option is the kind of analysis conducted by Burns, Nielson, Jensen, Heapy et al (2014) where subgroups were evaluated over the course of a pain management programme to identify the programme elements that might be most effective. Their findings suggest that there are two mechanisms: one directly relevant to the components of the programme such as relaxation or exercise, and another that they call “general mechanisms”. It’s this latter one that interests me.
  2. The way in which a programme might work may not be associated with the components. Like Burns and colleagues, I’ve thought that perhaps there is something within group process, or therapeutic process that is the “active ingredient” for change. Let me quickly unpack this.

Some people do quickly adopt what a programme suggests is useful – or at least they complete recording sheets to suggest they have. Others might still use the strategies, but perhaps in a different way from that originally intended (think of pacing as a good example: lots of patients I’ve seen who have been through a chronic pain management programme think that it’s all about “stopping before your pain gets out of control”, and rather than maintaining a consistent level of activity over time, their function gradually reduces as they do less and less. Their interpretation of pacing is that it’s about using your pain as a guide.

And still others pick and choose elements of what is covered in a programme – and use the strategies flexibly within the context of their daily lives. So on one day they may boom and bust, while on other days they chunk their activities into smaller bits. One day they’ll arrange their environment to suit them, another day they’ll ask other people to give them a hand. Their coping skill use depends on their goals and priorities at the time.

What DOES change is their self efficacy or belief that they CAN do what’s important in their lives – by hook or by crook. And even more importantly, they have something to DO that’s important to them. Maybe something that hasn’t been studied in sufficient detail is what a person wants to be able to do, what’s their motivation, what are their valued occupations? That’s a hypothesis about therapeutic change I think we need to ponder.

 

Asenlof, P., Denison, E., & Lindberg, P. (2005 ). Individually tailored treatment targeting motor behavior, cognition, and disability: 2 experimental single-case studies of patients with recurrent and persistent musculoskeletal pain in primary health care. Physical Therapy, 85(10), 1061-1077.

Burns, J., Nielson, W., Jensen, M., Heapy, A., Czlapinski, R., & Kerns, R. (2014). Does Change Occur for the Reasons We Think It Does? A Test of Specific Therapeutic Operations During Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Chronic Pain The Clinical Journal of Pain DOI: 10.1097/ajp.0000000000000141

Louw, Adriaan, Diener, Ina, Butler, David S, & Puentedura, Emilio J. (2013). Preoperative education addressing postoperative pain in total joint arthroplasty: Review of content and educational delivery methods. Physiotherapy theory and practice, 29(3), 175-194.

Moseley, G., Nicholas, Michael K., & Hodges, Paul W. (2004). A randomized controlled trial of intensive neurophysiology education in chronic low back pain. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 20(5), 324-330. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/00002508-200409000-00007

Michaleff, Zoe A., Maher, Chris G., Lin, Chung-Wei Christine, Rebbeck, Trudy, Jull, Gwendolen, Latimer, Jane, . . . Sterling, Michele. (2014). Comprehensive physiotherapy exercise programme or advice for chronic whiplash (PROMISE): a pragmatic randomised controlled trial. The Lancet, 384(9938), 133-141.

Nicholas, M., Asghari, A., Corbett, M., Smeets, R., Wood, B., Overton, S., . . . Beeston, L. (2012). Is adherence to pain self-management strategies associated with improved pain, depression and disability in those with disabling chronic pain? European Journal of Pain, 16(1), 93-104.

Vlaeyen, J. W., de Jong, J., Geilen, M., Heuts, P. H., & van Breukelen, G. (2001). Graded exposure in vivo in the treatment of pain-related fear: a replicated single-case experimental design in four patients with chronic low back pain. Behaviour Research & Therapy., 39(2), 151-166.

Williams, Amanda C. de C., Eccleston, Christopher, & Morley, Stephen. (2012). Psychological therapies for the management of chronic pain (excluding headache) in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (11). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD007407.pub3/abstract doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007407.pub3

Tauhou "New arrival"

Pain management and the political


There are only a few more weeks before a general election in New Zealand. This means the usual rounds of promises, muck-racking, hoardings and defaced hoardings. As I browse the research into chronic pain, and bemoan the lack of attention to the SOCIAL of the biopsychosocial model, I find myself looking at factors that almost entirely depend on a political solution. Let me explain.

Social. What is meant to fit into this part of Engel’s model? Drawing from one of his earlier works, Engel stated in his Cartwright Lecture at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (1977), that

“Health restored is not the former state of health but represents a different intersystemic harmony than existed before the illness, with characteristics based on all the system changes incurred during the illness. By virtue of the illness not only is the individual changed as a person, but so too may be changed others in relationship to him, in the family as well as the community…”

I interpret this segments of Engel’s work, and in particular the diagram he included in the published version of this speech, as a clear indication that while a biomedical model looks at the levels from quarks to systems, a biopsychosocial systems approach looks beyond this and into the person right up to society and nation.

biopsychosocialAnd this is where it gets political. While individuals reappraise their self worth, learn new skills, develop new living patterns (well within the contributions of most allied health including occupational therapists), Governments and economic policy have a direct influence on what occurs in the interaction between what the individual does and the effect on the family, community, culture and subculture (however you define this), and ultimately society-nation.

Here’s some recent research illustrating how these factors interact.

When a person develops chronic pain, clinicians are likely to ask “How did it begin? What happened?” The person will probably talk about an event in the last few months or years that may have triggered the most relevant experience of pain. What clinicians may not think to ask about, and the person with pain may not even consider, is what happened in early life.

Goosby (2013) looked at socioeconomic disadvantage and maternal depression in individuals during their teenaged years, and found that the probability of chronic pain increases in magnitude over life in those adults who had parents with less education, and in those who had mothers who were depressed. She points out that mothers who live in low-income households (e.g. single mothers on a benefit?) are “especially vulnerable to psychological distress and disorders such as depression” (p. 77). She calls this “intergenerational transmission”, and goes on to describe “risk amplification” that occurs for children with low socioeconomic status who continue to experience deprivation as they become adults, while those who are not disadvantaged continue to maintain their health and wellbeing at least in part because of economic stability.

She continues by describing that childhood disadvantage increases the risk of depression and pain in adulthood and that adult socioeconomic status is a key factor through which adult health and wellbeing emerge. Interestingly, she found that adult depression is influenced by fewer factors than adult chronic pain – in fact, she found that all indicators of childhood socioeconomic status had significant interactions with the RR of adult chronic pain relative to no conditions, and particularly for those who had mothers who were depressed.

A similar finding was made by Lacey, Belcher, & Croft (2013) in a study looking at life-course socioeconomic position influencing chronic pain in older adults.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this is political. In a climate where single parents (most often women) are told they are “welfare dependent”, receive a tiny sum of money or are asked to return to work when the child is 5 years old, often to work that is poorly paid (because more senior and well-paid positions rarely allow workers time to attend to children’s needs, mind you neither are poorly paid jobs), life is stressful and anyone vulnerable to depression and/or chronic pain is at high risk.

A sense of injustice can exist where individuals feel that circumstances are not fair, and that they are the victims of an injustice. In New Zealand there is a mitigating factor in that all accidental injuries are covered by the state-owned and tax-payer funded Accident Compensation Corporation. BUT, and this is a big one, there are incentives for those case managers to encourage and support people to return to work, while those who are injured while not working may receive far fewer entitlements and will not receive rehabilitation to return to work. This shouldn’t matter because access to rehabilitation is available to all – but in practice, does it?

McParland & Eccleston (2013) found that a sense of injustice can affect emotions, cognitions and behaviours. A particular point they raise is that when there is inequality between two people in a relationship, ie where one has money but the other does not (one is working, while the other is unwell with chronic pain) there may be adverse responses between the individuals. In New Zealand, if one person in a longterm relationship becomes unwell, while the other person is employed there is very little if any financial support for the couple. If the earner is only receiving a minimum wage, this presents a huge obstacle even to attending treatment.

My final review today (and believe me, there are SO many more than I’ve touched on!) comes from Antao, Shaw, Ollson, Reen and colleagues (2013).  They looked at intermittent work incapacity and how this influenced the way we can support people to sustainably remain working despite having times where their chronic pain interferes with this ability.  They draw on Bronfenbrenners Ecological Systems Theory which views child development within a context of social and interpersonal environments. Antao and colleagues used the environmental framework to analyse the workplace: .Micro level issues are defined as issues within the individual and personal realm and include factors such as cognitive deficits. Meso level issues are related to the workplace, such as workplace policies and accommodations. Finally,macro level issues are related to socio-cultural or political issues, such as benefits and insurances. (p. 13).

What these researchers found was there is considerable literature discussing micro-level support for people with pain. These are things like the individual learning about his or her condition, maintaining physical fitness, working on routines that can maintain or support work. Education, for example, focused on giving individuals information about worker’s rights, how to maintain quality of life through coping changes.

Meso-level strategies were rather more scarce in the literature, but they were present – things like educating employers and supervisors, modifying tasks or workstations, ensuring people are aware of the benefits of working on the individual and so on. I guess some of these fit into the “ergonomics” category.

Macro-level strategies were even less often presented, but included using flexible work practices (shifts, glide time, sharing tasks), providing timely financial support during times when an individual is unable to work, anti-discrimination laws and similar.

Meso- and Macro-level strategies are about social change and political will.

Where does this leave me?

When I consider the influence socioeconomic deprivation has on people, right from childhood through to the flow-on effects in adults, I worry about the effects of policy on people in New Zealand. There is an increasing disparity between those earning above $100,000 per annum, and those on the minimum wages of $14.50 or so. Worse for those on a benefit who are also labelled “benefit dependent”.

I’m worried that very often there is an outcry if a policy is introduced to support the situation of workers – employers complain that this is unsustainable, that they won’t remain in business and there will be economic fall-out because of this. I’m concerned at labelling that occurs if a person is on a benefit. Being on a benefit is not a life of luxury, yet benefit fraud is pursued more vigorously than so-called “white collar” crime, and in research conducted by Victoria University in 2011 “22 per cent of tax offenders received a custodial sentence” while “approximately 60 per cent of welfare fraud offenders received a custodial sentence.” Sophie Rule, Report Writer, Youth Parliament 2013, Ministry of Youth Development.

I am unhappy that the “trickle down” of economic growth hasn’t trickled, and that people who have few resources in so many ways are in a very real situation of social injustice. It’s a brave person who challenges an employer who decides to fire a worker who, having been in the same job for 20 years, has a heart attack and needs three months time off work. True story. Or a woman who, since the business she works for has moved from town to Rolleston, now has to travel by bus for an hour, then cycle for another 30 minutes to work in a job that pays minimum wage. And do the same again in the evening, despite her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In Christchurch. In winter. Oh and she lives with the man who had the heart attack. She doesn’t get paid when she needs a week or two off work because of her COPD as happened recently.

The social is largely, I think, a political matter. And chronic pain affects one in six New Zealanders. And they all vote.

 

Antao, Lilian, Shaw, Lynn, Ollson, Kaitlyn, Reen, Kavleen, To, Flora, Bossers, Ann, & Cooper, Lynn. (2013). Chronic pain in episodic illness and its influence on work occupations: A scoping review. Work: Journal of Prevention, Assessment & Rehabilitation, 44(1), 11-36.

Goosby, Bridget J. (2013). Early life course pathways of adult depression and chronic pain. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 54(1), 75-91. Goosby, Bridget J. (2013). Early life course pathways of adult depression and chronic pain. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 54(1), 75-91.

Lacey, Rosie J., Belcher, John, & Croft, Peter R. (2013). Does life course socio-economic position influence chronic disabling pain in older adults? A general population study. European Journal of Public Health, 23(4), 534-540.

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