Pacing: why do people use it?

Do you recommend pacing as a strategy for your clients/patients? If so, would you please consider taking part in a survey I’m conducting, looking at health professional’s beliefs about the underlying motivations for using pacing. The findings from this study will inform a future study in which I will explore the daily use of pacing as a strategy by people who live with chronic pain. The usual ethical consents have been granted, and your involvement is entirely voluntary, confidential, and anonymous.

I’m looking for health professionals from any discipline, but only if you personally recommend pacing to your clients/patients.

Please spread the word!









Click the link



Getting stuck with language

In my last post I talked about the ways in which humans learn to relate abstract concepts and experiences together (symbolic relations). I pointed out that we learn to take another person’s point of view as part of developing empathy, and that by interacting with our world we become aware of our place (here) and someone or something else’s place (there). We also learn “me” and “you” (not me), along with near and far, now and then and myriad other abstract concepts that our language can allow us to understand. I suggested that the flexibility of symbolic relations and the relational framing we develop as a result of this skill can be both a help and a hindrance.

Yes, we can remember that a pot can be used to cook, but we also can’t unlearn that relationship. And in being unable to unlearn a relationship we can find it difficult to consider alternative relationships between that pot and whatever else we could do with it. The pot will always be recognised as “something to cook with” although it might also become associated with a receptacle for water, a paperweight, a hat, and even a weapon – but when we’re first asked “what do you use a pot for?” we’ll almost always come up with “cooking”.

In relational frame theory, we develop the ability to empathise or adopt the view of another person based on perspective taking and contextual cues. Contextual cues help us learn the concepts of “I” and “you”  by moving from “here” to “there” to take the place of the other person. If a pen is here, and paper is there, when I go to the paper, it becomes “here” and the pen is “there”. In technical terms this is called deictic framing and this is how kids learn that some concepts only make sense from a given point of view – and here and there are two of those concepts.

How does this relate to pain?

Well, to enjoy being with others, you need to have sufficient deictic framing skills to “stand in another person’s moccasins”, to empathise with their feelings and to be willing to feel those feelings (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 32). The thing is, we don’t always want to feel what another person is feeling, especially if we’re angry with them, or they’re feeling sad or some other negative emotional state. We learn to put our ability to empathise on hold to avoid experiencing those feelings. We do this with our own emotions and experiences we’d rather not have. And it’s an adaptive thing – we don’t want to be completely immersed in another person’s experience all the time because it’s difficult to know what our own feelings are vs those of another. We also don’t want to experience all the negative things around us – we learn from them, true, but we don’t really want to feel them all the time. So we develop a skill called “experiential avoidance”. That is, we learn not avoid experiences we’d rather not have.

Experiential avoidance is a cool skill, it’s definitely helpful – it is a process that we use to avoid personal injury, unpleasant people, or situations we don’t feel comfortable in. BUT there’s a catch. Because we relate concepts to one another, we associate words with experiences and memories as well. This is also useful – we can recall the lovely feeling of summer even in the middle of a grey old winter! But at the same time, our most potent learning is often associated with unpleasant experiences, and so for me the sound of a rumbling truck can bring back all the memories of my house being jolted and struck by an earthquake. And because that experience is associated with feeling out of control, helpless, worried and unsettled, those emotions come back along with the memory of the earthquakes. All brought about by hearing a truck rumbling past! And talking about the earthquakes, for some people, is enough to bring back all those same memories.

No wonder, then, for some of the people we work with, just seeing someone walking by is enough to generate the memories, emotions and concerns they experience when they try to walk on a painful foot.

Because of our tendency to avoid experiences that don’t feel good, we naturally try to avoid coming into contact with those stimuli that evoke those negative feelings etc. For some people this can mean avoiding watching images on TV – I remember avoiding watching the tsunami in Japan that happened just after the quakes here in Christchurch. To me the emotions were too raw, I felt too overwhelmed by my own situation to feel I could empathise with those people in Japan.  In some of our clients, just talking about their own painful body can be overwhelming, bringing back unpleasant emotions, memories and thoughts. And indeed for some people, just seeing others doing the things they believe will hurt if they did them is enough to provoke both a negative emotional response AND an flare-up of their pain.

So. Experiential avoidance can help us avoid feeling overwhelmed…but it also stops us experiencing what is happening right now. And I think you can see how it can stop us learning, and it can limit the range of things we’re happy to do – not because there’s any threat right here and now, but because we remember what has happened, and we make predictions of what might happen in the future. The things that might happen – might not happen too! And the things that have happened have already occurred… but our brains are good at joining the dots and being a bit over-protective.

What this means for us as clinicians (and for us as people, too), is that we might need to be gentle but firm, and help people be present here and now. And gradually show people how to be OK with experiencing things that remind us of unpleasant events in the pursuit of something far more useful – flexible responses in a world that is always changing.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061

from Mahia

Words are never enough – but does that stop us?

Pain may be said to follow pleasure as its shadow; but the misfortune is that in this particular case, the substance belongs to the shadow, the emptiness to its cause. CHARLES CALEB COLTON, Lacon

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning. HARUKI MURAKAMI, 1Q84

But pain … seems to me an insufficient reason not to embrace life. Being dead is quite painless. Pain, like time, is going to come on regardless. Question is, what glorious moments can you win from life in addition to the pain?  LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD, Barrayer

Language is not just words, but what those words symbolise. We use movements of lips, tongue and throat to produce symbols we relate to other things. We then use the relationships we learn through symbols to frame or structure our experiences – language is a “form of cooperation that builds on the social nature of humans groups and enhances a culture of eusociality in which humans thrive” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016. p. 28). What this means is that humans learn to connect concepts together through language which represents concepts only because of a shared social understanding – and in sharing this understanding we feel connected.

Why am I talking about language? Well, relational frame theory is a theory of human behaviour that helps us understand how language can exert an influence on us through the way we understand symbolic relations.We learn symbolic relationships by interacting with our world – children learn concepts of  “I – you” (that you and I are different, but that I can take your perspective by imagining I was in your place); “here-there” (that here is where I am, but there is another place – and I can move to that place); “now – then” (what is happening now will become then soon) by handling objects, ultimately understanding that the concepts only make sense within the context of “here”, or “I”, or “now”.   To be empathic, we need to learn to take the perspective of another, see and feel things from another person’s point of view, and be willing to experience those feelings (Villatte, Villattee & Hayes, p.32).

To be empathic to another’s pain, we need to take the perspective of another, to be willing to experience “what it might feel like” from the other person’s shoes.

Why are symbolic relations important?

In Christchurch, as many people know, over the past five years we have been through over 10,000 earthquakes of more than 3 on the Richter Scale. The thought of having an earthquake, to someone raised in NZ, is a distinct possibility. We have small ones all the time. Then in September 2010 we had the first big earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night (early morning), when all was dark, and it was violent! Later that day we had many aftershocks, and I can remember my heart pounding and feeling anxious in the aftermath. What has happened since, though, is that I’ve learned to associate the word “earthquake” with a whole lot of concepts – a rumbling noise from a truck driving past, the deep rumble of earthworks, EQC (our national insurer), road cones, detours, heritage buildings being knocked down, having no water or power. I keep a look out for exits, I brace at the rumble of a truck, one of the topics of conversation is “how is your house” and I remember the fatigue of constant aftershocks in the middle of the night.

Learning the associations (symbolic relations) between the experience at the time of an earthquake and all these other things such as words, movements, actions and emotions means that as a person living in Christchurch, the word “earthquake” and the sight of road cones and the rumble of a truck have all gained additional meaning or salience to me.

Simply by remembering a particular day (for us it was September 22, 2011), or by looking at a road cone, or diggers operating in a trench in a road, I have emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses. This is the power of a symbol, once learned.

And once learned, that association will never be unlearned – I will always remember that trucks rumbling by sound a lot like the start of an earthquake, and I will probably always have a quick little bracing response that I may not even notice (but hitch me up to biofeedback and I’ll be skin conductance will be increased).

What does this have to do with pain?

In the same way that I learned about earthquakes being associated with a whole bunch of things that hadn’t been connected before September 2010, from the time we are born we develop associations between our experiences of pain and other things including language.

For the most part we learn that pain is associated with something not so good happening to our body. We learn that it’s something we don’t really want to experience, and so we try to avoid it (mainly). We learn words that are associated with that experience – “ouch!”, “hurt”, “painful”, “ache”. We also develop emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses to this experience. We learn that certain movements bring pain on, while others alleviate it; we learn that some people respond with sympathy to our words or movements while others don’t respond.

The thing about symbolic relations is that “the simplest act of remembering by using names and symbols … means that anytime, anywhere, we can remember past painful or difficult events based on a few cues…the past can become present through symbolic relations” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 33). While nonhuman animals can become fearful in situations that are similar to those they’ve felt threatened in, humans can experience the same emotions and responses even when a word is spoken – like earthquake for me brings on a heightened awareness of how vulnerable I am when the ground shakes.

What this learned association means is that for all humans, there are many cues that will elicit the same response as the actual event. And given the ubiquity of pain and the words we use to describe pain – and the associations we develop since we’ve been children – it’s no wonder that changing some of the more unhelpful associations and responses we have to the experience is a challenge.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about relational frame theory and how this theory can help us understand why words can be used to help – and harm – and how to implement useful verbal strategies in sessions to help our clients see their pain from a different frame.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061


Ambiguity and uncertainty

Humans vary in how comfortable we are with uncertainty or ambiguity: Tolerance of ambiguity is a construct discussed in cognitive and experimental research literature, and refers to the willingness to prefer black and white situations, where “there is an aversive reaction to ambiguous situations because the lack of information makes it difficult to assess risk and correctly make a decision. These situations are perceived as a threat and source of discomfort. Reactions to the perceived threat are stress, avoidance, delay, suppression, or denial” (Furnham & Marks, 2013, p. 718).  Tolerance to uncertainty is often discussed in relation to response to stress and emotions associated with being in an ambiguous situation, or it may refer to a future-oriented trait where an individual is responding to an ambiguous situation in the present. Suffice to say, for some individuals the need to be certain and clear means they find it very difficult to be in situations where multiple outcomes are possible and where information is messy. As a result, they find ways to counter the unease, ranging from avoiding making a decision to authoritatively dictating what “should” be done (or not done).

How does this affect us in a clinical setting? Well, both parties in this setting can have varying degrees of comfort with ambiguity.

Our clients may find it difficult to deal with not knowing their diagnosis, the cause of their painful experience, the time-frame of its resolution, and managing the myriad uncertainties that occur when routines are disrupted by the unexpected. For example, workers from the UK were interviewed about their unemployment as a result of low back pain. Uncertainty (both physical and financial) was given as one of the major themes from interviews of their experience of unemployment (Patel, Greasley, Watson, 2007).  Annika Lillrank, in a study from 2003, found that resolving diagnostic uncertainty was a critical point in the trajectory of those living with low back pain (Lillrank, 2003).

But it’s not just clients who find it hard to deal with uncertainty – clinicians do too. Slade, Molloy and Keating (2011) found that physiotherapists believe patients want a clear diagnosis but feel challenged when they’re faced with diagnostic uncertainty. What then happens is a temptation to be critical of the patients if they fail to improve, to seek support from other more senior colleagues, and end up feeling unprepared by their training to deal with this common situation. The response to uncertainty, at least in this study, was for clinicians to “educate” care-seekers about their injury/diagnosis despite diagnostic uncertainty (my italics), and a strong desire to see rapid improvements, and tend to attribute lack of progress to the client when either the client doesn’t want “education” or fails to improve (Slade, Molloy & Keating, 2003).

Physiotherapists are not alone in this tendency: There is a large body of literature discussing so-called “medically unexplained diseases” which, naturally, include chronic pain disorders. For example Bekkelund and Salvesen (2006) found that more referrals were made to neurologists when the clinician felt uncertain about a diagnosis of migraine. GP’s, in a study by Rosser (1996) were more likely to refer to specialists in part because they were uncertain – while specialists, dealing as they do with a narrower range of symptoms and body systems, deal with less diagnostic uncertainty. Surprisingly, despite the difference in degree of uncertainty, GP’s order fewer tests and procedures yet often produce identical outcomes!

How do we manage uncertainty and ambiguity?

Some of us will want to apply subtypes, groupings, algorithms – means of controlling the degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in our clinical practice. Some of the findings from various tests (eg palpation or tender point examination) are used as reasons for following a certain clinical rule of thumb. In physiotherapy, medicine and to a certain extent my own field of occupational therapy, there is a tendency to “see nails because all I have is a hammer” in an attempt to fit a client into a certain clinical rule or process. We see endless publications identifying “subtypes” and various ways to cut down the uncertainty within our field, particularly with respect to low back pain where we really are dealing with uncertainty.

Some of these subgroupings may appear effective – I remember the enthusiasm for leg length discrepancies, muscle “imbalance”, and more recently neutral spine and core stability – because for some people these approaches were helpful! Over time, the enthusiasm has waned.

Others of us apply what we could call an eclectic approach – a bit of this, a bit of that, something I like to do, something that I just learned – and yes, even some of these approaches seem to work.

My concern is twofold. (1) What is the clinical reasoning behind adopting either a rule-governed algorithm or subtyping approach or an eclectic approach? Why use X instead of Y? And are we reasoning after the fact to justify our approach? (2) What do we do if it doesn’t work? Where does that leave us? As Slade, Molloy & Keating (2003), do we begin blaming the patient when our hammer fails to find a nail?

I’ve long advocated working to generate multiple hypotheses to explain how and why a person is presenting in this way at this time. It’s a case formulation approach where, collaborating with the person and informed by broad assessment across multiple domains that are known to be associated with pain, a set of possible explanations (hypotheses) are generated. Then we systematically test these either through further clinical assessment, or by virtue of providing an intervention and carefully monitoring the outcome. This approach doesn’t resolve uncertainty – but it does allow for some time to de-bias our clinical reasoning, it involves the client in sorting out what might be going on, it means we have more than one way to approach the problem (the one the client identifies, not just our own!), and it means we have some way of holding all this ambiguous and uncertain information in place so we can see what’s going on. I know case formulations are imperfect, and they don’t solve anything in themselves (see Delle-Vergini & Day (2016) for a recent review of case formulation in forensic practice – not too different from ordinary clinical practice in musculoskeletal management IMHO) . What they do is provide a systematic process to follow that can incorporate uncertainty without needing a clinician to jump to conclusions.

I’d love your thoughts on managing uncertainty as a clinician in your daily practice. How do you deal with it? Is there room for uncertainty and ambiguity? What would happen if we could sit with this uncertainty without jumping in to treat for just a little longer? Could mindfulness be useful? What if you’re someone who experiences a great deal of empathy for people who distressed – can you sit with not knowing while in the presence of someone who is hurting?


Bekkelund, S., & Salvesen, R. (2006). Is uncertain diagnosis a more frequent reason for referring migraine patients to neurologist than other headache syndromes? European Journal of Neurology, 13(12), 1370-1373. doi:
Delle-Vergini, V., & Day, A. (2016). Case formulation in forensic practice: Challenges and opportunities. The Journal of Forensic Practice, 18(3), null. doi:doi:10.1108/JFP-01-2016-0005
Furnham, A., & Marks, J. (2013). Tolerance of ambiguity: A review of the recent literature. Psychology, Vol.04No.09, 12. doi:10.4236/psych.2013.49102
Lillrank, A. (2003). Back pain and the resolution of diagnostic uncertainty in illness narratives. Social Science & Medicine, 57(6), 1045-1054. doi:
Patel, S., Greasley, K., Watson, P. J. (2007). Barriers to rehabilitation and return to work for unemployed chronic pain patients: A qualitative study. European Journal of Pain: Ejp, 11(8), 831-840.
Rosser, W. W. (1996). Approach to diagnosis by primary care clinicians and specialists: Is there a difference? Journal of Family Practice, 42(2), 139-144.
Slade, S. C., Molloy, E., & Keating, J. L. (2012). The dilemma of diagnostic uncertainty when treating people with chronic low back pain: A qualitative study. Clinical Rehabilitation, 26(6), 558-569. doi:10.1177/0269215511420179

Values and why they matter in pain management

I’m away from my desk, visiting Auckland this week, so this post will not be in my usual format. Having time away allows me breathing space to think about things (even more than usual), and I’ve been thinking about values and their place in our lives.

We all have values, things we believe are important. Values underpin the decisions we make, our priorities, and even the way we interpret events that are usually considered value-free. Value judgements are part of being human, I think. They can be prosocial – or not.

When I looked up values, this definition appeared: the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something. Some values are explicit, things we’ve deliberately decided to place importance on, while others are implicit, things we’ve not fully thought about but have emerged as part of our culture or family or upbringing.

In pain management values are imbued in all we do. Some people explicitly value reducing pain intensity as their ultimate goal. Others value reducing distress associated with experiencing pain. Still others consider that enabling people to reduce the disability associated with pain to be the most important part of pain management.

I wrote recently that pain and suffering are two distinct constructs. That pain is an experience associated with the threat of tissue damage but doesn’t necessarily equal suffering. That suffering is about loss of “self-ness” or losing aspects of who and what we expect from ourselves or believe about ourselves. I believe we can always find ways to help people retain or regain a sense of self, even when it may not be possible to alter the experience of pain itself. And that reflects the value I place on being able to express who I am. And my values inform how I work with people.

Inherent in much of our health practice is the idea that people should be able to remain independent and do what they value. Ideas of independence are value-laden – reflecting beliefs that individuals should be able to make their own decisions. But this doesn’t hold in some cultures where groups or families or a collective are seen as more important than any single individual. I’ve seen conflict occur in a health service where the individual I was working with came from a culture where family orientation, support to remain within the family and receive care was prioritised. The service I worked within prioritised independence and helping the person become more capable and independent, while the person and her family prioritised family relationships and maintaining this person’s dependence on family care. No matter how hard we worked with this person, we couldn’t achieve joint goals because we were working at cross purposes.

Because many values develop within a cultural context, and are implicit and not really ever examined, within healthcare we can be completely unaware of how our values might influence how we work with the person we’re seeing. And vice versa. Some of the challenges we face as healthcare providers can derive from our own unexamined implicit values assumptions.

For example, we might see someone as being unmotivated, as not putting effort in – they may see us as unsympathetic, as not listening to their concerns. They may believe we’re meant to “do the work” for them, we may see this as “being dependent”. They may believe that healthcare should be able to fix everything. We may recognise we can’t. Or we may believe we should be able to fix everything if we try hard enough.

Should values be left unexamined? Should we even think about questioning our own assumptions and those of the people we see as clients?

I don’t advocate trying to change someone’s values, but I do advocate sitting beside them and examining them. I think we need to recognise that values exert an influence over what we do, how we do it and what we prioritise. Mostly I think we need to look at our own implicit assumptions, and judge them against a criterion of workability within a context.

What this means for me is taking the time to question myself whenever I hear myself using the word “should”. I use some of the old cognitive therapy strategies of downward arrow ( to check in with why I think something is important. And then I ask myself whether it’s workable – and whether it takes me closer to, or further away, from the life I want to live.

Here’s a thought: what about trying this yourself. Ask yourself why it’s important to do whatever it is you do, then ask yourself how well is it working. You might be surprised at what comes up for you. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

daisy do

Did it help? Questions and debate in pain measurement

Pain intensity, quality and location are three important domains to consider in pain measurement. And in our kete*of assessment tools we have many to choose from! A current debate (ongoing debate?) in the august pages of Pain (International Association for the Study of Pain) journal shows that the issue of how best to collate the various facets of our experience of pain is far from decided – or even understood.

The McGill Pain Questionnaire (MPQ) is one of the most venerable old measurement instruments in the pain world.  It is designed to evaluate the qualities of pain – the “what does it feel like” of sensory-discriminative components, evaluative components, and cognitive-affective components. There are 20 categories in the tool, and these examine (or attempt to measure) mechanical qualities, thermal qualities, location and time.  Gracely (2016), in an editorial piece, compares the McGill to a set of paint colour samples – if pain intensity equals shades of grey, then the other qualities are other coloures – blue, green, red – in shades or tints, so we can mix and match to arrive at a unique understanding of what this pain is “like” for another person.

To begin to understand the MPQ, it’s important to understand how it was developed. Melzack recognised that pain intensity measurement, using a dolimeter (yes, there is such a thing – this is not an endorsement, just to prove it’s there), doesn’t equate with the qualities of pain experienced, nor of the impact of previous experiences. At the time, Melzack and Wall were working on their gate control theory of pain, so it’s useful to remember that this had not yet been published, and specificity theory was holding sway – specificity theory arguing that pain is a “specific modality of cutaneous sensation”, while pattern theory held that the experience reflects the nervous systems ability to “select and abstract” relevant information (Main, 2016).  So Melzack adopted a previous list of 44 words, carried out a literature review, and recorded the words used by his patients. Guided by his own three dimensional model of pain, he generate three groups of descriptors to begin to establish a sort of “quality intensity scale”. These were then whittled down to 78 words that have been used since, and by used I mean probably the most used instrument ever! Except for the VAS.

There are arguments against the MPQ – I’m one who doesn’t find it helpful, and this undoubtedly reflects that I work in a New Zealand context, with people who may not have the language repertoire of those that Melzack drew on. The people I work with don’t understand many of the words (‘Lancinating‘ anyone?), and like many pain measures, the importance or relevance of terms used in this measure are based on expert opinion rather than the views of those who are experiencing pain themselves. This means the measure may not actually tap into aspects of the experience of pain that means a lot to people living with it. Main (2016) also points out that interpreting the MPQ is problematic, and perhaps there are alternative measures that might be more useful in clinical practice. Some of the criticisms include the difficulty we have in separating the “perceptual” aspects of pain from the way pain functions in our lives, and the way we communicate it, and the MPQ doesn’t have any way to factor in the social context, or the motivational aspects of both pain and its communication.

In a letter to the editor of Pain, Okkels, Kyle and Bech (2016) propose that there should be three factors in the measurement – symptom burden (they suggest pain intensity), side effects (or medication – but what if there’s no medication available?), and improved quality of life (WHO-5). But as Sullivan and Ballantyne (2016) point out in their reply – surely the point of treatment is to improve patient’s lives – “we want to know if it is possible for the patient’s life to move forward again. However it is also important that we do not usurp patients’ authority to judge whether their life has improved” (p. 1574). What weighting we give to, for example, pain reduction vs improved quality of life? I concur. Even the MPQ with all its history doesn’t quite reflect the “what it means to me to experience this pain”.

Did it help? Answering this critical question is not easy. Pain measurement is needed for furthering our understanding of pain, to ensure clinical management is effective, and to allow us to compare treatment with treatment. But at this point, I don’t know whether our measures reflect relevant aspects of this common human experience.  Is it time to revisit some of these older measures of pain and disability, and critically appraise them in terms of how well they work from the perspectives of the people living with pain? Does this mean taking some time away from high tech measurement and back to conversations with people?


(*pronounced “keh-teh” – Maori word for kitbag, and often used to represent knowledge)

Gracely, R. H. (2016). Pain language and evaluation. Pain, 157(7), 1369-1372.

Main, C. J. (2016). Pain assessment in context: A state of the science review of the mcgill pain questionnaire 40 years on. Pain, 157(7), 1387-1399.

Okkels, N., Kyle, P. R., & Bech, P. (2016). Measuring chronic pain. Pain, 157(7), 1574.

Sullivan, M. D., & Ballantyne, J. (2016). Reply. Pain, 157(7), 1574-1575.


Crispy crunchy

What is our goal in pain management?

One of the cool things about having worked in chronic pain management since the mid-1980’s is that I’ve seen a few things come and a few things go.  Some things remain, of course, and the things that seem most long-lived are debates about pain reduction vs living with pain. On one hand, there’s an enormous industry set up to help people reduce their pain experience through pharmacology, injection procedures, surgery, hands-on therapy, movement practice, and novel approaches like brain stimulation and even mirror therapy. On the other hand, there’s a smaller but equally well-established industry established to help people live with their pain, usually involving self-management of some sort and following a cognitive behavioural approach.

The two seem almost incompatible in many respects – why would someone choose to live with pain if their pain can be reduced or alleviated? What are the ethics of not offering pain reduction if it’s available? Why focus on hard work learning to live within the constraints of pain if there’s a way to get rid of it?

I wonder if it’s time to look at the underlying reasons for offering pain management. What is the goal? (BTW occasionally I might write “our” goal – and I do this deliberately because I think there are assumptions made by people who live with pain, and treatment providers, that may not always be explicit).

Why do we offer pain treatments?

Looking beneath the “oh but it’s a good way to earn a living” economic argument, I think some of the reasons we offer pain treatment is a sense of moral concern at seeing people in distress. As a society we’ve cast pain as a “thing” that needs to be fixed, a wrong that must be righted. We have cast ill health and disease as something that should not exist, and we use words like “war” or “battle” when we discuss treatments.  The Hippocratic Oath makes it clear that physicians “must not play at God” yet defining the limits of treatment is a challenge our society has yet to fully resolve.

At the same time as we view pain as an ill that must be removed, underneath the moral argument are a few other reasons – we think it’s wrong to allow someone to suffer. We think it’s wrong that people might not be able to do as they wish. We respect individual agency, the freedom to engage in life activities, to express the self, to participate in life fully and completely. And we think it’s important that, when disease or illness strikes, we offer something to reduce the restrictions imposed on individuals.

What’s wrong with these reasons for offering treatment?

Well, superficially and in the main, nothing. As humans we do have a sense of compassion, the desire to altruistically help others. Whether this is because, as a species, we hope someone will help us if we’re in the same situation, or whether we do it because of some other less selfish reason, I’m not sure. But there are problems with this way of viewing pain as an inevitably negative harmful experience. And I think it has to do with conflating (fusing together) the concepts of pain and suffering.

We offer people some treatments create suffering: I’ve just quickly skimmed a recent paper on using long-acting opioids for chronic noncancer pain where it was found that “prescription of long-acting opioids for chronic noncancer pain, compared with anticonvulsants or cyclic antidepressants, was associated with a significantly increased risk of all-cause mortality, including deaths from causes other than overdose, with a modest absolute risk difference” (Ray, Chung, Murray, Hall & Stein, 2016).

Given the poor response to pharmacological approaches experienced by so many people living with chronic pain (see Turk, Wilson & Cahana, 2011), not to mention “failed” surgery – the rates of persistent postsurgical chronic pain range from 12% (inguinal hernia) to 52% for thoracotomy (Reddi & Curran, 2014) – it surprises me that we often don’t discuss what to do (and when) if our treatments produce pain, or make it worse.

Nonmedical treatments can also be lumped in with these medical approaches – how many years of back-cracking, pulling, pushing, prodding, needling and exercising do people living with pain go through before someone pulls the plug and says “how about learning to live with your pain?”

What’s my goal in pain management?

When I see someone who is experiencing pain, whether it’s persistent or acute, my goal is for them to be able to respond to the demands of their situation with flexibility, and to live a life in which their values can be expressed.

That means no recipe for treatment, because each person is likely to have a whole bunch of different demands, things they’re avoiding, things that limit what they’re OK with doing. Values also differ enormously between people – we might all choose to work, but the reasons for working (and the kind of work we do) is informed by what we think is important. I’m intrigued by new learning, new information, and complexity. Others might be focused on ensuring their family is secure. Others still might be working to have a great social network. All of these values are relevant and  important.

Many of our treatments actually limit how flexibly people can respond to their situation – think of “safe” lifting techniques! And sometimes even the time people take away from living their normal life means their values are not able to be expressed. The thoughts and beliefs instilled by us as treatment providers (and from within our discourse about pain treatment) may also limit flexibility – think about “pain education” where we’ve inadvertently led people to believe that their pain “should” reduce because “know they know about neuroscience”.

At some point in the trajectory of a chronic pain problem, the person experiencing pain might need to ask themselves “Is what I’m doing helping me get closer to what I value, or is it getting in the way of this?” As clinicians we might need to stop for a minute, think of this part of the Hippocratic Oath “I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick”  and begin to talk about overall wellbeing rather than just treating “the problem”.

To alleviate suffering we may not need to eliminate pain – we may instead need to think about how we can help people move in the direction of their values


Reddi, D. and N. Curran, Chronic pain after surgery: pathophysiology, risk factors and prevention. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 2014. 90(1062): p. 222-7

Ray, W. A., Chung, C. P., Murray, K. T., Hall, K., & Stein, C. M. (2016). Prescription of long-acting opioids and mortality in patients with chronic noncancer pain. JAMA, 315(22), 2415-2423.

Turk, D. C., Wilson, H. D., & Cahana, A. (2011). Pain 2: Treatment of chronic non-cancer pain. The Lancet, 377(9784), 2226-2235. doi:10.111/j.1468-1331.2010.02999.x


The positive power of what we say during treatment

Expectations form one of the important predictors of response to treatment, especially in the case of treatments for pain. A person’s belief or expectation that a treatment will reduce their pain is thought to be part of the response to placebo – and indeed, part of the response to almost any treatment.  Much of the research into expectancies has been carried out in experimental models where healthy people are given a painful stimulus, then provided with some sort of treatment along with a verbal (or written) instruction that is thought to generate a positive belief in the effectiveness of that treatment. The people we see in a clinical setting, however, are in quite a different setting – they experience pain sufficiently disruptive to their sense of well-being that they’ve sought treatment, they may not know what the pain problem is, they may have other health conditions affecting their well-being, and for some, their pain may be chronic or persistent. Do expectations have a clinically-relevant effect on their pain?

Luckily for us, a recent meta-analysis published in Pain (Peerdeman, van Laarhoven, Keij, Vase, Rovers, Peters & Evers, 2016) means the hard work of crunching through the published research has been completed for us! And given 15 955 studies were retrieved in the initial pass through the databases, we can be very relieved indeed (although only 30 met the inclusion criteria…).

What are expectations?

Before I swing into the results, it’s important to take a look at what expectations are and how they might relate to outcomes. According to Kirsch (1995) response expectancies are expectancies of the occurrence of nonvolitional responses (ie responses we’re not aware we make) as a result of certain behaviours, or specific stimuli.  Kirsch points out that nonvolitional responses act as reinforcement for voluntary behaviour, so that by experiencing a nonvolitional response such as relief, joy, reduced anxiety and so on, people are likely to engage in  behaviours associated with that experience again. For example, if someone is feeling worried about their low back pain, just by having a treatment they expect will help and subsequently feeling relieved, they’re likely to return for that treatment again.

How are expectations created?

Some expectations are generated within a culture – we expect, for example, to see a health professional to relieve our ill health. In general, simply by seeing a health profession, in our developed culture, we expect to feel relieved – maybe that someone knows what is going on, can give a name to what we’re experiencing, can take control and give direction to whatever should happen next. This is one reason we might no longer feel that toothache as soon as we step into the Dentist’s waiting room!

Peerdeman and colleagues outline three main interventions known to enhance positive expectations for treatment: verbal suggestion “You’ll feel so much better after I do this…”; conditioning “If I give you this treatment and reduce the painful stimulation I’ve been giving you, when you next receive this treatment you’ll have learned to experience relief” (not that you’d actually SAY this to anyone!); and mental imagery “Imagine all the wonderful things you’ll be able to once this treatment is over”.

I think you’d agree that both verbal suggestion and mental imagery are processes commonly used in our clinics, and probably conditioning occurs without us even being aware that we’re doing this.

How well does it work for people with acute pain?

As I mentioned above, expectations are used in experimental designs where healthy people are poked and zapped to elicit pain, and hopefully our clinical population are not being deliberately poked and zapped! But in clinical samples, thanks to the review by Peerdeman and co, we can see that there are quite some impressive effect sizes from all three forms of expectancy induction – g =  0.67 (95% CI 0.49-0.86). That means a good deal  of support from the pooled results of 27 studies to suggest that intentionally creating the expectation that pain will reduce actually does reduce pain!

And now for chronic pain

Ahhh, well…. here the results are not so good, as we’d expect. Small effects were found on chronic pain, which is not really unexpected – chronic pain has been around longer than acute pain, so multiple reinforcement pathways have developed, along with pervasive and ongoing experiences of failed treatments where either neutral or negative effects have been experienced.

What does this mean for us as clinicians?

Probably it means that we can give people who are about to undergo a painful procedure (finger pricking for diabetes, dressing changes for ulcers, getting a flu jab) a positive expectation that they’ll feel better once it’s over because the strongest effect was obtained for people undergoing a painful procedure who received a positive verbal suggestion that the procedure would help.

Chronic pain? Not quite so wonderful – but from this study I think we should learn that expectations are a powerful force in our treatments, both individually with the person sitting in front of us, but also socioculturally – we have an expectation that treatments will help, and that’s not something to sniff at. Perhaps our next steps are to learn how to generate this without inducing reliance or dependence on US, and on helping the person recognise that they have generated this themselves. Now that’s power to the people!


Kirsch, I. (1985). Response expectancy as a determinant of experience and behavior. American Psychologist, 40(11), 1189.

Peerdeman, K. J., van Laarhoven, A. I. M., Keij, S. M., Vase, L., Rovers, M. M., Peters, M. L., & Evers, A. W. M. (2016). Relieving patients’ pain with expectation interventions: A meta-analysis. Pain, 157(6), 1179-1191.

ferny thing

A new definition of pain

The IASP definition of pain has been revolutionary. It has helped shift the focus away from mechanisms involved in producing the experience we all know, towards defining the nature of that experience. The definition is relatively simple, easy to remember and contains several important qualitative definitions that are integral to the experience. For those of you who haven’t attended one of my classes, the definition is:


An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.

Note: The inability to communicate verbally does not negate the possibility that an individual is experiencing pain and is in need of appropriate pain-relieving treatment. Pain is always subjective. Each individual learns the application of the word through experiences related to injury in early life. Biologists recognize that those stimuli which cause pain are liable to damage tissue. Accordingly, pain is that experience we associate with actual or potential tissue damage. It is unquestionably a sensation in a part or parts of the body, but it is also always unpleasant and therefore also an emotional experience. Experiences which resemble pain but are not unpleasant, e.g., pricking, should not be called pain. Unpleasant abnormal experiences (dysesthesias) may also be pain but are not necessarily so because, subjectively, they may not have the usual sensory qualities of pain. Many people report pain in the absence of tissue damage or any likely pathophysiological cause; usually this happens for psychological reasons. There is usually no way to distinguish their experience from that due to tissue damage if we take the subjective report. If they regard their experience as pain, and if they report it in the same ways as pain caused by tissue damage, it should be accepted as pain. This definition avoids tying pain to the stimulus. Activity induced in the nociceptor and nociceptive pathways by a noxious stimulus is not pain, which is always a psychological state, even though we may well appreciate that pain most often has a proximate physical cause.

It was first proposed in 1979, and has not been substantially changed since then, although the accompanying note has.

Now two prominent pain researchers are proposing a new definition: Pain is a distressing experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage with sensory, emotional, cognitive and social components (C de C Williams & Craig, in press).

Their arguments centre on some important aspects that have influenced our understanding of pain and represent advances in scientific understanding of pain since the first definition. The first definition was ground-breaking but acknowledged only sensory and emotional features of pain: our understanding of pain now recognises the influence of and effect on  cognitive and social components. These aspects are important because in many ways the original definition seems to discourage clinicians to be aware of emotional, sensory AND cognitive and social aspects of pain in ACUTE pain as well as chronic.

They further argue that pain is more than “unpleasant” if it is clinically problematic, and suggest that “distressing” be used to describe the nature of that experience. And it is this aspect that I am less comfortable with – because, as many readers of this blog know, it is possible to experience pain without distress, particularly if that pain is being managed using approaches such as mindfulness and acceptance. To my mind, a definition that equates experiencing pain with distress risks invalidating those who, because of their understanding of pain, or their social context, or even concurrent competing goals, fail to identify their pain as distressing but instead experience it as “negative but irrelevant”, or those who, because of social context and learning, don’t frame their pain as distressing and present as stoic and calm.

Despite this difference in opinion, the rest of the arguments for changing the definition of pain appeal to me. There is the need to acknowledge not only verbal report, but also nonverbal behaviours as part of the way humans express and communicate their experience of pain. Unfortunately, researchers and clinicians can focus on a single dimension: intensity – although thankfully most effective clinicians will incorporate more than one dimension and include assessment of behaviours, voice, facial expression, interference on daily life, quality of pain etc.

C de C Williams and Craig also propose revising the note. The note is often not included when people are discussing the definition of pain – in fact, one prominent clinician I know declared that “Pain is not a psychological phenomenon” – er…. take a look at the last sentence of the note, please Dr K. As a result, there are those who still do not recognise that pain is not just about nociception and nociceptive pathways. This means some unfortunate patients do not have very real and clinically important psychosocial aspects of their experience attended to, despite years of research showing just how critical these factors are!

Their first recommendation is to remove reference to “pain in the absence of tissue damage… are probably psychological” – because as we know now, neuroplasticity provides an explanation for this phenomenon.  Additionally, they note that psychological phenomena exist even in acute pain, such as emotional responses, problematic thinking styles, avoidance, social disruption – and these can all occur with diagnosable tissue pathology. Finally, ruling out prickling, dysaesthesia etc seems to ignore the presence of these as part of many reports of pain.

What would I suggest? I think it’s still useful to use the word “unpleasant”, perhaps it could be relabelled an “aversive” experience, rather than necessarily “distressing” which seems to restrict painful experiences to only those that people identify as distressing – even people who participate in body suspension where the entire bodyweight is carried on hooks inserted into the skin and who experience this as a process in which they may ultimately feel euphoria describe the pain as “aversive” (or, to use their words “It hurts like a bitch”!).  Aversive implies the call to action potential that is present in all pain.

My definition? Pain is an aversive experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage with sensory, emotional, cognitive and social components .

Updating the definition of pain. 
Pain. 2016. 

How do help someone change their beliefs about pain?

This post is my little attempt to educate clinicians! Some of you will know I really don’t like the term “pain education” or “educating” people. The reason doesn’t go back as far as the original definition of “educate” which is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary “educate (v.) Look up educate at Dictionary.commid-15c., “bring up (children), to train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate” (source also of Italian educare, Spanish educar, French éduquer), which is a frequentative of or otherwise related to educere “bring out, lead forth,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + ducere “to lead” (see duke (n.)). Meaning “provide schooling” is first attested 1580s. Related: Educated; educating.”In other words, educate means to “bring out, lead forth”.

Pain education is a buzz word right now. It’s not a new concept, but it certainly has been hitting the consciousness of a whole bunch of people who previously would have thought of pain either in terms of “oh it’s something to do with the tissues” or “if I can’t find the cause, it must be something in the person’s head”.  Learning about pain and the neurobiology of pain is an excellent thing, a wonderful first step for clinicians who may have missed out on learning this stuff in undergraduate training, and I’m not disrespectful of the need to know more. What I’m a lot uneasy about is thinking of pain education as a primary means for pain reduction, particularly when it’s carried out as “pain ed” where information is dumped without finesse.

We know that simply giving people information in order to change behaviour does not work unless the person is at the “preparation” stage of making a change.  In fact, mass media campaigns about back pain education haven’t been altogether successful despite an early study in Australia showing some really positive gains (Buchbinder, Jolley & Wyatt, 2001; Gross, Deshapnde, Werner, Reneman, Miciak & Buchbinder, 2012). Despite this, there have been numerous studies showing that there are positive gains if people experiencing pain are given good information about pain neurobiology (Louw, Diener, Butler & Puentedura, 2011; Louw, Diener, Butler & Puentedura, 2013; Louw, Puentedura & Mintkin, 2012; Moseley, Nicholas & Hodges, 2004). So… why am I so antsy about pain “education”?

Well, mainly because I think we’re often not trained to do “education” very well. We’re clinicians, we’ve spent years learning about our profession, but on the whole we haven’t been taught to teach – or even, truth to tell, how to help other people change their minds! With the exception of my psychology colleagues, I think most of us learned about what to tell people, rather than how to lead or guide people. And none of us like to be told what to do!

So… how do I go about helping someone think differently about their pain?

The first thing is, I’m not “educating”. The end result of “education” can simply be “Oh goody now I can get on with the real work”, “Yay! I’ve told them what to think, and now if they don’t get it, it’s their problem.” I think if we can change our language we might begin to approach this part of our therapy a little differently. If we aim to help people understand, think differently, reconceptualise or make sense of their experience we can begin to use a whole range of approaches to get to that end result. If we “educate” we might only think about the process of giving information.

How else can we help people think differently about their pain? I think it’s a process of helping people discover for themselves because we know this is a more successful process for learning than if we just give the answers. Think about kids – if we tell a kid how to ride a bike, they probably won’t be very good at riding even though they might know all about centrifugal forces, and inertia, and coordination and how a bike is made.  The reason we want to give information is that it might help give a kid more knowledge about what to think about when they’re riding – but it won’t change that they  need to hop on the bike to learn to ride it. Similarly, in helping people who are experiencing pain, we want people to be able to do things again – and while knowing more about pain might help reduce the fear from not knowing, but in the end people have to DO something differently to truly enact change.

How do I help someone discover for themselves? I begin by asking what people understand about their pain. I ask them what goes through their mind when they experience pain, what they think is going on and how they feel. I draw a diagram like the one below, and begin to fill in the gaps.

I will ask then what they think is going on – their theory – and add that into the diagram. I might ask what do they think that means for them? What do they think they need to do now? What would it mean if that was true? What would it mean if it wasn’t true? What would it say about them if it wasn’t true? How would they know if it was true?

I might ask about other experiences in the body, other sensations, things the person might not notice – maybe by saying “what do you notice in your shoulders? your breathing? your hands?” and so on. And then what these things mean as well. I’m primarily seeking information on the presence of sympathetic arousal (“stress response”) because this often presents at the same time as people experience pain – pain can be anxiety-provoking, so it’s a common reaction but often not noticed.

I include external factors – like what other people might have said, their response to the person’s experience – like advice, warnings, or even behaviours. When I think of other people I often separate “healthcare professionals”, “family”, and “work”, and sometimes include recent media campaigns that may have influenced how the person interprets his or her pain.

The resultant diagram can look a lot like this – but with the person’s own comments and phrases contained within each circle:

20160510_110132The idea behind listening and completing a diagram like this is to help me as a clinician to really hear what the person has been experiencing. We know all these aspects affect the experience of pain, but so often we go in with our own ideas about the problem, and fail to put together this complex web of interactions that help us answer the two questions:

  • Why is this person coming to see me in this way at this time?
  • What can be done to reduce both distress and disability?

My intention at the time I work through this diagram isn’t to change anything. It’s simply to listen and reflect what I’ve heard and to assemble that information in a way that makes some sense. It’s only after I’ve done this that I feel OK to begin to consider intervention/treatment priorities. For some people there is no point in trying to change what they believe – anything I say is likely to be countered by all these other things the person is hearing from everyone else. So instead I might begin by exploring movements and how these might be influencing what the person is focusing on. Or I might think about the impact or effect of avoiding things and talk through “what if” pain was less of a problem.

Sometimes I will address the thoughts and beliefs, basing my suggestions on looking at either the evidence that the belief is true – or the effect of that belief on the person’s experience. We might work out some small behavioural tests to see what happens if the person tries something out – maybe trying a movement they’ve avoided, just to see if their memory of how it was is accurate, or as bad as they recall.

When, and only when, the person indicates they want to know more about their pain, or they’ve found that their assumptions about pain don’t work out (because we’ve established some discrepancies between what the person thinks they’ve been told and their own experiences), then I can begin to go down the pain neurobiology education route – but it’s embedded in two important things:

  1. That they’ve indicated a need and readiness to know more, and
  2. I’ve already listened and tried to understand where they’re coming from

To my mind, doing anything before these two conditions are met is bound to be met with resistance, and risks being either ignored or rejected.


To summarise: giving information alone is not enough (usually) to help someone change their understanding of their own pain.

Some people don’t need to be given the whole pain education thing – what they want is to be heard and understood.

People learn more by doing, and if we want to help people do more (ie be less disabled and distressed by their pain) then we not only need them to know more, we need to help them DO more.

That means a lot less talking and a lot more doing.

Telling is less helpful than exploring together.


Buchbinder, R., Jolley, D., & Wyatt, M. (2001). 2001 volvo award winner in clinical studies: Effects of a media campaign on back pain beliefs and its potential influence on management of low back pain in general practice. Spine, 26(23), 2535-2542.

Gross, D. P., Deshpande, S., Werner, E. L., Reneman, M. F., Miciak, M. A., & Buchbinder, R. (2012). Fostering change in back pain beliefs and behaviors: When public education is not enough. Spine Journal: Official Journal of the North American Spine Society, 12(11), 979-988.

Louw, A., Diener, I., Butler, D. S., & Puentedura, E. J. (2011). The effect of neuroscience education on pain, disability, anxiety, and stress in chronic musculoskeletal pain. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 92(12), 2041-2056. doi:

Louw, A., Diener, I., Butler, D. S., & Puentedura, E. 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.

Louw, A., Puentedura, E. L., & Mintken, P. (2012). Use of an abbreviated neuroscience education approach in the treatment of chronic low back pain: A case report. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 28(1), 50-62.

Moseley, G., Nicholas, M. K., & Hodges, P. 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: