What to do with the results from the PCS

The Pain Catastrophising Scale is one of the more popular measures used in pain assessment. It’s popular because catastrophising (thinking the worst) has been identified as an especially important risk factor for slow recovery from pain (Abbott, Tyni-Lenne & Hedlund, 2010), for reporting high levels of pain intensity (Langley, 2011), and for ongoing disability (Elfving, Andersoon & Grooten, 2007). I could have cited hundreds more references to support these claims, BTW.

The problem is, once the PCS is administered and scored: what then? What difference does it make in how we go about helping a person think a little more positively about their pain, do more and feel more confident?

If you haven’t seen my earlier posts about the PCS, take a look at this, this, and this for more details.

Anyway, so someone has high scores on rumination, helplessness and magnifying – what does this mean? Let’s say we have two people attending the clinic, one has really high scores on all three subscales, while the other has low or average scores. Both have grumbly old low back pain, both have had exercises in the past, both are finding it tough to do normal daily activities right now.

For a good, general pain management approach to low back pain, and once red flags are excluded (yes, the “bio” comes first!) this is what I do. I establish what the person thinks is going on and ask if it’s OK to talk about pain neurobiology. Together we’ll generate a pain formulation, which is really a spaghetti diagram showing the experience as described by the person (I used guided discovery to develop it). I then ask the person what they’d be doing if their pain wasn’t such a problem for them, perhaps what they’re finding the most frustrating thing about their situation at the moment. Often it will be sleep, or driving or cooking dinner, or perhaps even getting clothes on (shoes and socks!). I’ll then begin with helping the person develop good relaxed breathing (for using with painful movements), and start by encouraging movement into the painful zone while remaining relaxed, and tie this in with one of the common activities (occupations) the person needs or wants to do. For example, I’ll encourage bending forward to put shoes and socks on while breathing in a relaxed and calm way. I’ll be watching and also encourage relaxing the shoulders and any other tense parts of the body. For someone who is just generally sore but doesn’t report high pain catastrophising, I will also encourage some daily movements doing something they enjoy – it might be walking, yoga, dancing, gardening, whatever they enjoy and will do regularly every day for whatever they can manage. Sometimes people need to start small so 5 minutes might be enough. I suggest being consistent, doing some relaxation afterwards, and building up only once the person has maintained four or five days of consistent activity. And doing the activity the person has been finding difficult.

If the person I’m seeing has high scores on the PCS I’ll begin in a similar way, but I’ll teach a couple of additional things, and I’ll expect to set a much lower target – and probably provide far more support. Catastrophising is often associated with having trouble disengaging from thinking about pain (ruminating), so I’ll teach the person some ways to deal with persistent thoughts that hang around.

A couple to try: mindfulness, although this practice requires practice! It’s not intended to help the person become relaxed! It’s intended to help them discipline their mind to attend to one thing without judgement and to notice and be gentle with the mind when it gets off track, which it will. I ask people to practice this at least four times a day, or whenever they’re waiting for something – like the jug to boil, or while cleaning teeth, or perhaps waiting for a traffic light.

Another is to use a “15 minutes of worry” practice. I ask the person to set a time in the evening to sit down and worry, usually from 7.00 – 7.15pm. Throughout the day I ask the person to notice when they’re ruminating on their situation. I ask them to remind themselves that they’re going to worry about that tonight and deliberately put that worry aside until their appointment with worry. Then, at 7.00pm they are asked to get a piece of paper and write ALL their worries down for a solid 15 minutes. No stopping until 15 minutes is over! It’s really hard. Then when they go to sleep, I ask them to remind themselves that they’ve now worried all their worries, and they can gently set those thoughts aside because they won’t forget their worry, it’s written down (I think worry is one way a mind tries hard to stop you from forgetting to DO something about the worry!). People can throw the paper away in the morning because then it begins all over again.

Usually people who score high on the PCS also find it hard to be realistic about their pain, they’ll use words that are really emotive and often fail to notice parts of the body that aren’t in pain. By noticing the worst, they find it tough to notice the best.  I like to guide people to notice the unloved parts of their body, the bits that don’t hurt – like the earlobes, or the belly button. I’ll offer guidance as to what to notice while we’re doing things, in particular, I like to guide people to notice those parts of the body that are moving smoothly, comfortably and that look relaxed. This is intended to support selective attention to good things – rather than only noticing pain.

Finally, I give more support to those who tend to be more worried about their pain than others. So I might set the goals a little lower – walking for five times a week, two days off for good behaviour rather than every day. Walking for five minutes rather than ten. And I’ll check in with them more often – by text, email or setting appointments closer together. It’s important for people who fear the worst to experience some success, so setting small goals that are achieved can build self efficacy – especially when I try hard to offer encouragement in terms of what the person has done despite the odds. So, if the person says they’ve had a real flare-up, I’ll try to boost confidence by acknowledging that they’ve come in to see me even though it’s a bad pain day, that they’ve tried to do something instead of nothing, that talking to me about the challenge shows guts and determination.

People who see the glass as half empty rather than half full are just people. Like you and I, they’re people who have a cognitive bias. With support, we can help people view their pain differently – and that process applies to all of us, not just those with high scores on the PCS.


Abbott, A. D., Tyni-Lenne, R., & Hedlund, R. (2010). The influence of psychological factors on pre-operative levels of pain intensity, disability and health-related quality of life in lumbar spinal fusion surgery patients. Physiotherapy, 96(3), 213-221. doi:10.1016/j.physio.2009.11.013

Elfving, B., Andersson, T., & Grooten, W. J. (2007). Low levels of physical activity in back pain patients are associated with high levels of fear-avoidance beliefs and pain catastrophizing. Physiotherapy Research International, 12(1), 14-24.

Langley, P. C. (2011). The prevalence, correlates and treatment of pain in the european union. Curr Med Res Opin, 27(2), 463-480. doi:10.1185/03007995.2010.542136


What is pain for?

We’re told we need pain – without the experience, we risk harming our bodies and living short lives. With pain, and for most people, we learn to not go there, don’t do that, don’t do that AGAIN, and look at that person – don’t do what they’re doing! Thirst, hunger, fear, delicious tastes and smells, the feelings of belonging, of safety and security, of calm and comfort: all of these are experiences we learn about as we develop greater control over our bodies.

Pain is an experience we learn to associate with actual or possible threat to “self”. Let’s take a moment to think about what “self-hood” means.

If I ask you “who are you?” you’ll tell me your name, probably your occupation, maybe where you live and who you live with. Baumeister (1997) suggests our sense of self is about “the direct feeling each person has of privileged access to his or her own thoughts and feelings and sensations.” He goes on to say “it begins with the awareness of one’s own body and is augmented by the sense of being able to make choices and initiate action.” We learn about who we are through interacting with the environment, but also as we interact with other people and begin to sort through our roles, contributions and relationships.

Of course, our sense of self changes over time and is reciprocally influenced by choices we make as well as opportunities (and threats) around us, both environmental and social.

We work really hard to avoid threats to our sense of self. For example, I’ll be we’ve all seen that person who steadfastly refuses to stop colouring his hair, wearing the same clothing styles as he did in his 20’s, holding on to the same habits as he did at the same age even when he’s now in his 50’s, has a paunch, and still looks for partners 20 years younger than he is…  He still believes he’s that young stud despite the evidence in the mirror. And of course the same applies to women perhaps more so!

So what happens when our mind/body is threatened? How do we know it? And what do we do about it?

In this instance I’m not talking about social threats, though there’s interesting research suggesting that being socially excluded has similar neurobiological effects as being physically threatened (or experiencing pain – though this may reflect the distress we experience when we’re hurt and when we’re socially excluded – see Iannetti, Salomons, Moayedi, Mouraux & Davis, 2013; Eisenberger, 2015). I’m instead talking about threats to our physical body. Those threats may be violence from another person, physical trauma to the body, or the threat of physical harm to the body. When we experience these kinds of threats, and once an aspect of mind/body has disentangled the threat evaluation from whatever other goals we’re currently engaged in, we experience pain. Tabor, Keogh and Eccelston (Pain, in press) define pain in terms of action: an experience which, as part of a protective strategy, attempts to defend one’s self in the presence of inferred threat.

So pain is there to help us maintain an intact sense of self in the presence of threat – threat that we’ve inferred from our context (or drawn a conclusion from incomplete data). It’s part of a system that works to maintain “us” in the face of multiple threats that we encounter.

Tabor, Keogh and Eccleston also argue that pain is an experience designed to intrude on awareness to show that “boundaries have been reached and action must be taken”. Pain is one way our mind/body can give us an indication of boundary – just how much, or how little, we can do. For example, I experience pain when I bend my thumb down to reach my wrist – it’s one way I can learn how far I can bend without disrupting something! The purpose of that pain is to help “me” defend against doing really dumb things, like stretching my thumb out of joint!

Interestingly, when we feel overwhelmed by our pain, when we can’t defend against it (because it feels too intense, has meanings that threaten our deepest sense of self) we tend to withdraw from responding to everything else – our conversations stop, we don’t notice other people or events, we pull into ourselves and ultimately, we can lose consciousness (think of the accounts of early surgery without anaesthesia – the surgeons were kinda grateful when the patient lapsed into unconsciousness because at last they weren’t writhing to get away – see Joanna Bourke’s book “The Story of Pain” for some harrowing stories!).

When we lose consciousness, our sense of self disappears. We lose contact with the “what it is to be me”.

Our sense of self also disappears when we experience pain we can’t escape and we can’t make sense of. Throughout the time while people are trying to label their pain, establish the meaning of their symptoms, and while people are searching for a solution to their pain, people’s experience of both time and “who I am” is threatened (Hellstrom, 2001).

To me, this is one of the primary problems associated with pain – and one we’ve almost completely ignored in our healthcare treatments. All our treatments are aimed at helping “get rid of the pain” – but what isn’t so often incorporated in these efforts is a way of engaging and rebuilding a resilient sense of self. So while the pain may ebb away, the “self” remains feeling vulnerable and threatened, especially if there’s any hint of pain returning.

What can we do better? Perhaps talk about what vision a person has of themselves as a “self”. Help them work towards becoming the “self” they believe they are – or at least helping them express the underlying values that their “self” has previously been expressing. That way perhaps people can find flexible ways to express that “self” – which will make them more capable of living well under any circumstances.


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

Bourke, J. (2014). The story of pain: From prayer to painkillers: Oxford University Press.

Eisenberger, N. I. (2015). Social pain and the brain: Controversies, questions, and where to go from here. Annual review of psychology, 66, 601-629.

Hellstrom, C. (2001). Temporal dimensions of the self-concept: Entrapped and possible selves in chronic pain. Psychology & Health, 16(1), 111-124. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08870440108405493

Iannetti, G. D., Salomons, T. V., Moayedi, M., Mouraux, A., & Davis, K. D. (2013). Beyond metaphor: Contrasting mechanisms of social and physical pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(8), 371-378.

Tabor, A., Keogh, E. and Eccleston, C. (2016) Embodied pain— negotiating the boundaries of possible action. Pain. ISSN 0304- 3959 (In Press)


What difference does it make to know about psychosocial risk factors?

The “psychosocial yellow flags” or risk factors for developing ongoing disability after a bout of acute low back pain have been promulgated in New Zealand since 1997. Introduced as part of the Acute Low Back Pain Guidelines, the yellow flags were lauded both locally and internationally and subsequently there have been many international guidelines which have adopted this kind of integration. But what exactly do we do with that information? How does it help if we find out that someone is really afraid their pain means something awful, or if they fear their life will never be the same again, or if they truly worry about doing movements that provoke their pain?

Truth to tell, although there have been a lot of studies examining the relevance of psychosocial risk factors, the uptake among clinicians has been fairly abysmal. This is particularly so among clinicians who work either mainly with acute musculoskeletal pain, or amongst those who are mainly involved in treated the body. One physio I know said she got the impression during her training that psychosocial factors “are the things we can blame when our treatments don’t work”.

I think part of the problem is the focus on assessment “technology”. There is a proliferation of questionnaires that can be used to help spot the person who’s likely to have difficulty recovering. We have STartBack, Orebro Musculoskeletal Questionnaire, Pain Catastrophising Scale, Tampa Scale of Kinesiophobia, Depression Anxiety Stress Scale, Pain Self Efficacy Scale – most of which are known by their abbreviations, so it’s like an alphabet soup! But despite knowing about these questionnaires, and perhaps even administering them to people we think might need assessment, once the results come in it’s pretty difficult to know what to do next.

So what if a person reports really high levels of catastrophising? Or that they’re very high on the Fear of Injury/Reinjury on the TSK? Or that they have the lowest ever score on the PSEQ? What on earth do you do to make an impact?

Some people are very actively engaged in “Pain Education”. It’s given to absolutely everyone because “the evidence says” it “works”. Pain reduces. People get engaged in their exercise. Life returns to normal.

Some people refer immediately on to a psychologist. Let them deal with the “difficult” patients.

Others just carry on as normal but in the back of their mind have the “out” that “Oh but they have yellow flags” – and drop their expectations accordingly.

To me that’s just not good enough, and it suggests to me that we need to learn more about what these measures mean – and what to do differently as a result.

There’s a couple of problems though:

  1. How do we choose who to give a questionnaire to? – do we rely on “intuition” or do we give them out to everyone?
  2. Which questionnaires do we use? There’s no “gold standard” – just a mix of various measures that tap into part of the picture…
  3. How much do we rely on strong RCT’s examining whole treatment packages, versus how much do we rely on principles of behaviour change and knowledge of the underlying theories relevant to pain and disability?
  4. What if our clinical reasoning models are completely silent on the work involved in supporting people who present with these risk factors – what if our clinical reasoning models suggest that this work is not all that important compared with the “real” work of tissues and muscles and movement?

Here are my thoughts on what we can do.

I think we should give screening questionnaires to everyone who comes in with an acute bout of musculoskeletal pain, and I think there are a couple that really work well – Orebro is clearly one of them, PCS or PASS are both useful, and I think it’s helpful to screen for mood problems. Why do I think everyone needs these? Well, it’s easier to give them to everyone than to rely on our terribly inaccurate intuition. The risk of failing to identify someone who needs more support is high (and the consequences of omitting this is serious). By routinely administering screening measures we can de-stigmatise the process (though there shouldn’t be any stigma associated with understanding that pain involves the whole person!). We can make the administration easy by integrating it within routine clinic entry process – and by using electronic forms of each questionnaire we can make entering and scoring them easy.

We then need to learn what the questionnaires actually measure – not just the total score, but the subscales as well. Then we need to use those subscale scores to understand what we need to ask the person when we see them face-to-face. This helps us begin to understand the person and how they came to develop these beliefs and attitudes, and in doing so we can develop greater empathy for their experience – and alter our treatments to reflect their needs.

For management, I think we have to, at this stage, step beyond the RCT for evidence. There’s a few reasons for this: one is that RCTs naturally omit individual responses to the treatment meaning we lost the detail as to who responds to which aspect of the treatment. Another is that RCTs often group patients together to ensure power is reached – but in doing this, omit important individual differences. And finally, each person we see is a unique individual with a unique interaction between the various factors influencing their presentation – and there are simply insufficient RCTs to account for these differences. Does this mean we stop using evidence? Oh no!! It just means we need to look at the principles behind many treatments – what are the guiding principles and why might they apply to this person at this time? Finally we need to monitor outcomes so we can establish whether our approach actually helped.

Finally, I think our clinical reasoning models need to include important aspects of treatment that we vary, often without being aware that we do.

For example, if we see someone who scores very high on the PCS and tends to ruminate or brood on the negative, we can’t go ahead and give that person the same set of exercises or activities we’d give someone who is quite confident. We’ll need to lower the physical demands, give really good explanations, take the time to explain and de-threaten various sensations the person may experience, we’ll probably need to move slowly through the progressions, and we’ll definitely need to take time to debrief and track progress.

These “invisible” aspects of treatment are, I think, often the most important parts – but they’re often not mentioned in clinical protocols, and perhaps our skill in titrating the challenges we give our patients is not well developed. These factors incorporate psychological techniques of behaviour change – things like reinforcement, motivational interviewing, problem solving, Socratic questioning, how to fade support, how to bolster confidence, how to vary the environment, and how to avoid pliance and tracking (or going along with things rather than truly integrating the learning). If we want to work with people and help them change their lives, we need to learn how people change behaviour. That means, I’m afraid, learning some psychology…!


Empathy and catastrophising influence pain inhibition

When I went to occupational therapy school I was introduced to nociception and the biological underpinnings of pain. I wasn’t, at that time, taught anything about the brain, attention, emotions or any social responses to pain behaviour. Like most health professionals educated in the early 1980’s, pain was a biological and physical phenomenon. I suppose that’s why it can be so hard for some of my colleagues to unlearn the things they learned way back then, and begin to integrate what we know about psychological and social aspects of our pain experience. Because pain is a truly biopsychosocial experience. Those pesky psychosocial factors aren’t just present in people who have difficulty recovering from pain, they’re actually integral to the entire experience.

Anyway, ’nuff said.

Today I stumbled across a cool study exploring two of the psychosocial phenomena that we’ve learned are involved in pain. The first is catastrophising. And if you haven’t got your head around catastrophising it’s probably time to do so. It’s one of the strongest predictors of disability (Edwards, Dworkin, Sullivan, Turk & Wasan, 2016). Catastrophising is the tendency to “think the worst” and consists of ruminating (brooding on), magnifying (over-estimating the negative impact) and helplessness (feeling as if there’s nothing you can do).  The second is empathy, or the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Empathy is not the same as sympathy which seems to be about the emotions a person experiences while observing another’s emotional state. In fact, separate parts of the brain are involved in the two experiences (Cuff, Brown, Taylor & Howat, 2014).

Back to the study. This study examined conditioned pain modulation in partners observing their partner undergoing a painful experience. It was carried out by Gougeon, Gaumond, Goffaux, Potvin and Marchand (2016) in an attempt to understand what happens to the pain experience of people watching their loved ones in pain. The experimental protocol was (1) baseline; (2) assessing pain VAS 50; (3) pre-CPT heat pain testing (thermode preimmersion at a fixed temperature); (4) CPT (either at 201Cor71C); and (5) post-CPT heat testing (thermode postimmersion at the same fixed temperature). What they did was ask the participants to submerge their right hand in a freezing cold waterbath while video recording them. They then asked their partners to place their right hand in lukewarm water while watching the video recording. Participants were asked to rate their pain intensity.

What they found was the higher the catastrophizing score was, stronger was their descending pain inhibition when they were watching either themselves or their spouse in pain. In women, the more empathic the women were, the better was their descending pain inhibition when they observed their spouse in pain.

This is extraordinary. Firstly, the finding that there was a correlation between catastrophising score and descending inhibition contradicts other research studies – Gougeon, Gaumond, Goffaux, Potvin and Marchand suggest that although cognitive and emotional processes underlying catastrophising increase pain perception and decrease inhibition, their experimental design may have increased pain perception during the conditioned stimulus which may have triggered more conditioned pain modulation. They also suggest that the catastrophising level of participants increases their perceived pain, explaining why it correlates with conditioned pain modulation efficiency.

Secondly, women were more distraught than men by observing pain in others. Adopting the perspective of a loved-one elicited stronger activation in regions involved in the “pain” matrix than adopting the stranger’s perspective (Cheng et al), and the authors suggest that empathy is a powerful factor involved in pain modulation while observing someone in pain. This shows that descending inhibition is influenced by physical stimulus characteristics (such as intensity or location), as well as personal cognitive dimensions. A far cry from the notion that psychosocial factors play little part in modulating our pain experience.

What does this actually mean for us?

Well, to me it suggests that we need to be aware of our own empathic response to observing someone else who is experiencing pain. Let’s put it this way: if I’m an especially empathic person (and especially if I tend to catastrophise) and I see people who are experiencing pain in my clinical practice, my own emotional and cognitive response to seeing people may influence my behaviour and practice. For example, I might be less willing to tell people that I don’t have a way to reduce their pain. I might pursue more “heroic” healthcare – send people off for more treatments, try for longer with unsuccessful treatments “just in case”, I might even send people away from my care because I find it hard to tolerate being around someone who “doesn’t respond”.

You see, being empathic and catastrophising tends to elevate feelings of distress in the presence of pain. If we don’t have effective ways to manage our own distress when we are in the presence of someone who is indicating they’re sore, we’re at greater risk of developing burnout and of feeling frustrated (Gleichgerrcht & Decety, 2014).

For this reason I’m a fan of using mindfulness because it does help people to step back from the emotional judgements of experience, and in particular the negative impact such judgements have on both interactions and emotions (Dobkin, Bernardi & Bagnis, 2016).


Cheng Y, Chen C, Lin CP, et al. Love hurts: an fMRI study. Neuroimage. 2010;51:923–929.

Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2014). Empathy: A review of the concept. Emotion Review, 8(2), 144-153. doi:10.1177/1754073914558466

Decety, J., Yang, C.-Y., & Cheng, Y. (2010). Physicians down-regulate their pain empathy response: An event-related brain potential study. Neuroimage, 50(4), 1676-1682.

Dobkin, P. L., Bernardi, N. F., & Bagnis, C. I. (2016). Enhancing clinicians’ well-being and patient-centered care through mindfulness. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 36(1), 11-16.

Edwards, R. R., Dworkin, R. H., Sullivan, M. D., Turk, D. C., & Wasan, A. D. (2016). The role of psychosocial processes in the development and maintenance of chronic pain. The Journal of Pain, 17(9, Suppl), T70-T92.

Gleichgerrcht, E., & Decety, J. (2014). The relationship between different facets of empathy, pain perception and compassion fatigue among physicians. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 8, 243.

Gougeon, V. M., Gaumond, I. P., Goffaux, P. P., Potvin, S. P., & Marchand, S. P. (2016). Triggering descending pain inhibition by observing ourselves or a loved-one in pain. Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(3), 238-245.


On the value of doing, being and becoming

An old occupational therapy tagline was “doing, being, becoming”. The meaning of this phrase is intended to point to the tight relationship between what we do, who we are, and how we develop and grow. As I read blogs discussing an increased emphasis on “real world” outcomes there is something missing from the narratives: that intangible quality that marks the difference between colouring in – and painting. Or filling in a form – and writing a poem. Going from room to room – and dancing. Something about expressing who we are and what we value.

Values are things we hold dear. They are principles, or “desired qualities of behaviour”, life directions (not destinations).

The things we do (our actions) are inevitably infused with our values because how we do things (sloppily, carefully, neatly, with gay abandon, enthusiastically) is an expression of what we think is important. To give you an example, I occasionally vacuum my house. Sometimes I’ll do it really thoroughly – because I love seeing a sparkling house. Sometimes I’ll do it with a flick and a promise – because it’s a beautiful day and I want to get out of the house. In both instances I’ve expressed something about what is important to me – I do enjoy seeing my home looking tidy and organised. I don’t have to have reasons for liking my home this way, I just do. When I do a quick flick through my home it’s not because I’m lazy or I don’t care, it’s because I value getting out of the house more than I value having a tidy and organised home on that day.

Values don’t have to be explained. We don’t have to have reasons for holding them. They’re something we choose to place as important.

Why be concerned about values? Well, they underpin our choices. They provide motivation towards some activities, and away from others.

There is a lot of emphasis at the moment on people with osteoarthritis “getting fit” and “doing exercise”. The current approach in New Zealand is to provide community-based programmes to people who have just been declined joint replacement surgery (because we can’t offer surgery to everyone who wants it). Uptake hasn’t been enormous, and to be honest I’m not surprised. People who haven’t been exercisers are not very likely to begin an exercise programme that is undoubtedly going to increase their pain in the short-term (because, duh, movement hurts!) even if the programme offers hope of improved pain and function in the future. Putting this into a “values” and “motivation” perspective, people usually value comfort over discomfort. They value short-term outcomes over long. If they’ve never exercised much, it’s clear that exercise isn’t something they value. To help them engage in an exercise programme, we need to work hard to identify values they hold dear so they’ll look to those to over-ride the value of comfort over discomfort.

An alternative might be to think of different ways of expressing values that will concurrently meet the goal of increased exercise. For example, I don’t enjoy exercise per se. In fact I’ve boasted that my body is an exercise-free zone! To tell the truth, that’s not exactly the case. I just don’t do “exercises”. Instead I dance. I get out of my chair for five minutes every 20 minutes and go do something involving my whole body. I garden. I play with the dog. I go out in the kayak. I walk miles when I’m fishing.

Some people would argue that “there’s no evidence base for this” – but I think we’ve forgotten that exercises are simply a planned and repetitive form of moving our bodies because we don’t do that nearly as much in modern times as we used to even in the early 1900’s, let alone in stone-age times. I don’t think hunter-gatherers “do exercises” except as training for something like war or hunting (to increase skill).

Living life with chronic pain must become a lifestyle. And it needs to be a lifestyle that has some life to it – not an endless series of “things we must do for health”, unless “health” is a particular value. If life is just about “things we do for health” doesn’t that constantly remind people of what they don’t have? That they’re not healthy? Making them patients instead of people? For most people, to be healthy is a means to an end: they want to connect with family, express who they are, contribute to their society, love and be loved. If the person in front of us isn’t into exercise, it’s OUR job to work out what they value and connect what we think is important to what they think is important, or we will simply fail.

Some simple steps to identify values – try these out in the clinic!

  1. When a person attends your clinic, they’re expressing a value, that they care about something. Asking the person “what do you hope from coming to see me” is a pretty common opening line. Try extending this by, after they’ve answered, asking “why is that important to you?” or “what would it mean you could do” or “how would that make a difference to you?”
  2. If a person says they don’t like something, try suggesting to them that they value the exact opposite. eg if they’ve said they really don’t like running, ask them why: “it’s boring” might be the answer. This answer suggests they like variety and excitement in their exercise routine. Then you can ask them what activities they see as exciting – maybe instead of running, they’d enjoy virtual boxing (bring out the Oculus Prime!), or a scavenger hunt, or geocaching.
  3. Use the 1 – 10 “readiness ruler” technique from Motivational Interviewing. Ask the person to draw a line and put 1 at one end, and 10 at the other. 1 = not at all important and 10 = incredibly important. Then ask them to put a cross on the line to indicate the importance they place on doing exercise/healthy living/pain management (whatever you’re asking them to do). Then (and this is important!) ask them why they put that mark so high. This is important – even if that mark is down on 2!! Ask them why they put it there and not lower. This will help elicit important values that you can then use to connect what you want them to do with what they value.

A new year

So 2016 is over, and 2017 is here. As usual, I find the new year to be a time for reflecting on what is important in life, and what I’d like to see more of this year. Usually I’ll want more balance. More space between frantic activity. Maybe even less frantic activity! And I pretty much always want to learn something new. But this year I want to be a bit different. Yes I’ve been thinking about what’s important, and yes I want more balance, but this year I want to work on a new project as part of this blog.

I’ve been writing for so many years, and one of my main reasons for doing so is to bridge the gap between what’s found in research, and what clinicians are doing in their practice. I want to inform and I want to infuse that information with a strong sense that alongside what we know from research we need to remember these things:

  1. We work with people – not doing things TO people (even if we do things to people), but we have a window of maybe an hour in a clinic in which everything we say and everything we do is pondered over by the people we see. And believe me, people will interpret what we say and do and then make their own decision about what happens next.
  2. We could all become a patient. That’s a bit humbling because we don’t expect we’ll develop a problem, but pain is indiscriminate – it will affect anyone and everyone. Trouble recovering is somewhat more discriminating – some people are at more risk than others, but here’s the thing: there are SO MANY variables that have been known to influence recovery that we can never be truly certain that we’ll be able to dodge that bullet. So, you and I can become a patient, and our recovery may also be complex, and we may need to swallow the bitter truth that rehabilitation is plain hard work.
  3. People don’t exist in isolation. Most of our treatment philosophy and techniques focus on the person with pain. Just that person. Not their family, their employer, their friends or colleagues or mates. Just that individual. But we know that people live within a community. And that community is pretty big – especially when we think of the connections made around the interwebs! And for every time we see “a person” we ALSO need to see “a person-in-context”.
  4. We get it wrong. We all do. We fail. We don’t reason clearly. We get hooked up in our own biases. We ignore things. We look for things that confirm our own beliefs. We notice things we want to notice, and conveniently ignore things we don’t want to notice. And we often don’t even know we’re doing it. That’s a constant and ongoing tendency we all need to work hard to counter.
  5. Research often omits important variables. This world is complicated. There are so many factors influencing what happens, when, where and why. Researchers can’t control everything. And because people are messy, complicated and ornery beings, the people we see (and ourselves) don’t always fit within the parameters of what’s been found in a research study. This doesn’t mean research findings aren’t important, it just means we need to temper our tendency to adopt a new and groovy thing just because a piece of research suggests it’s very cool. And we need to recognise that, especially here in NZ, studies conducted elsewhere in the world may not work as well here in our country. And that applies everywhere and to all human-oriented research. Context is critical. What people want and believe in is also critical. Qualitative research begins to bridge the gap between experimental designs and individual variability – but it’s often considered less valuable than quantitative research.
  6. People living well with chronic pain need to inform our practice. Why? Because we can learn so much from people who have been able to see life differently. Who have taken gems from wherever they’ve found them, been able to integrate those gems into their daily lives, and are now in the best position to help us learn what worked for them – and most importantly, why it’s worked.
  7. We’re biopsychosocial beings. People are biological beings, with psychological processes that influence their actions, many of which have been picked up from the social context in which they live. Those psychosocial factors are integral to living, not some add-on, after-the-fact mess that only applies if our treatments don’t work. We ALL actively process what happens to us, and interpret these things in light of what we already know and what we think might happen next. Yes I know this model is incomplete. I know some people can think of it as reductionist. Others think it’s messy and non-scientific. Still others believe it’s useless and impractical. But whether it’s an “accurate” way of thinking about people or not, I think it can be a helpful framework from which we can begin to explore situations where people are involved.

The new project

I’ve written thousands of words. Usually about 1200 once a week on this blog alone. My intention this year is to collate that writing and sort it into some semblance of order. I intend to post short summaries on topics and link to some of my older work for details. And maybe, just maybe, there could be a book at the end of it! Whatever I manage, this year I will be learning new things, and I will be posting them up here. So keep visiting! Ask questions and comment. Be part of the conversations that can change our approach to helping people with pain. Want to join me?


End-of-year musings

It’s my last post for the year. It has been an extraordinary year, lots of surprises, shocks and enough excitement for anyone! I’m not even going to start on the political changes, here in NZ we’ve had yet another major earthquake, excitement as ACC (our national accident insurer) sets up new pain service contracts (with a LOT of people who haven’t been involved in pain management before… there’s an experiment in the making!), and continuing road cone carnage on the streets of Christchurch.

On the pain news front, I can’t think of any incredibly ground-breaking news – although one medic advised that “Virtually all cases of low back pain can now be diagnosed definitively by criterion standard methods as to source and cause.” That same medic also argued that a paper by Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder (2016) on non-specific low back pain, published in The Lancet, represented “the views of non-evidence-based troglodytes who (a) have apparently not read any scientific papers since 1966, and (b) have vested interests in “managing” non-diagnosed patients so their practices remain busy and they reinforce each other’s views that the burden of low back pain cannot be eased.” I’ll leave the critiquing of that view to those with more time and energy than I have!

It’s also been a year in which various commentators have critiqued the “biopsychosocial model” as it’s applied in musculoskeletal pain.  Some have pointed out that this is an unscientific model, it’s not a theory that can be tested and therefore can’t point to “truth” or whatever approximation we can currently identify. Others have argued that by adopting this framework, practitioners must either be versed in “life, the universe and everything” – or perhaps become exactly what advocates of this approach decry: reductionists. I’m not sure I follow this argument, but those that raise it are intelligent, articulate and far more thoughtful than those who believe that Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder are “troglodytes” or have “vested interests”.

I continue to hold that a biopsychosocial perspective explains more, and is of practical use when we consider the various factors that might influence why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be done to reduce their distress and disability. Here’s my take.

Biopsychosocial model

When we look into the original biopsychosocial model, we need to understand the context in which Engel first developed it. He was a psychiatrist, and at the time psychiatry was under threat from psychologists in particular, who were strongly advocating that many mental illnesses were actually “problems of living”. Things like alcohol abuse, forms of mood disorder, relationship issues and the like were seen as disorders influenced by learning and environment rather than biology. Psychiatrists were perhaps on the way to being sidelined from the very area in which they claim expertise. Engel, influenced by general systems theory and cybernetics, proposed a way for psychiatrists to remain relevant: look at the person as part of a wider system in which each element in the system could influence and be influenced by the next. Engel used this approach as a way to frame conversations with the patients he saw – attempting to understand how and why they were seeking help, and especially, attempting to understand the person and his or her priorities. I think that’s admirable.

How the model has evolved since then is an interesting tale. I first encountered the model during my occupational therapy training, where it was a foundation to viewing people-in-context. It was presented as a bit old hat (I started training in 1979), and was replaced in my profession by Gary Kielhofner’s Model of Human Occupation. This model similarly draws on general systems theory, and argues for the relevance of volition and habits as well as capacity from a biological/performance stance to undertake occupation and of course, contexts such as environment which includes the social environment. MOHO incorporates much of what we consider to be biopsychosocial – in fact, occupational therapy as a profession is based on the idea that people actively engage in purposeful and meaningful activities (occupations) that are formed out of the affordances available to them by virtue of biology, psychology and social elements within an environmental context.

So what?

For a model, or theory, to have value it needs to offer something that existing models or theories don’t. It needs to be more parsimonious (make fewer assumptions), explain more (be more consilient), hold together with existing knowledge (cohere), and predict more (Thagard, 1978).

For a clinician, a theory must also be useful in terms of explaining why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and directing what can be done to reduce distress and disability. Why these questions? Because people actively make decisions to seek treatment. They evaluate their experience in light of their past experiences, prevailing community beliefs about the trajectory of their problem, family influences, and yes, legislative influences. These are possibly more important than the biology of their problem – because we’re not going to treat someone who doesn’t believe they have a problem!

As clinicians I think we need to ponder exactly what we consider to be “treatment”.

When my fracture is reduced and immobilised, that is “treatment” – but it’s not actually ‘healing’ my bones, it’s actually up to my body to do the work. What immobilisation does is create an environment in which my body can heal itself. But the problem of a broken bone is not “treated” just by immobilisation. Treatment has to include the rest of my recovery – and involve prevention strategies too. My recovery will need to include restoring function. And some of that restoration will be by guiding me through various movements that increase tissue tolerance as well as my confidence that my limb will support me. My recovery also has to include me understanding and learning from my experience – will I jump off that cliff again? Will I leave the toys all over the floor again? Will I walk on a slippery path again?

I think clinicians simply create an environment in which people can recover. And we need to go beyond measuring range of movement or strength to establish that recovery has occurred. Recovery isn’t just about returning to “normal” whatever that is. It’s about moving beyond this interruption and into new possibilities and new challenges. It’s really about being able to be who we really are. While that’s primarily the person’s own responsibility, our job as clinicians is to create an environment where it’s possible. While a biopsychosocial model/theory/framework makes life complex, using this approach allows us to be aware of more of the factors relevant to recovery and growth than simply looking at people as if they’re bits of meat, bone, and juice.

In the new year

I’ve been blogging since 2007. In that time I’ve written over a thousand posts all on the topic of pain. Almost all of my posts are on the theme of how we can remember that we are working with people. Other human beings who have their own thoughts, beliefs and priorities. Humans who make sense of their situation as best they can. People who, like us, hold cognitive biases, and feel emotions, and get stuck, and hold values. My real focus is on how we can integrate these things into clinical reasoning – because until we do, we’re ignoring what matters most to the people we seek to serve.


Engel, G. L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196(4286), 129-136. doi:10.1126/science.847460

Maher, C., Underwood, M., & Buchbinder, R. (2016). Non-specific low back pain.  The Lancet. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30970-9

Thagard, P. R. (1978). The best explanation: Criteria for theory choice. The Journal of Philosophy, 75(2), 76-92.


… a little more about Pain Catastrophising subscales

I’ve been writing about the Pain Catastrophising Scale and how to use this instrument in clinical practice these last two posts here and here because the construct of catastrophising (thinking the worst) has become one of the most useful to help identify people who may have more distress and disability when dealing with pain. Today I want to continue with this discussion, but looking this time at a large new study where the subscales magnification, rumination and hopelessness have been examined separately to understand their individual impact on pain severity and disability.

Craner, Gilliam and Sperry looked at the results of 844 patients with chronic pain prior to taking part in a group programme (a heterogeous sample, rather than a single diagnosis, so this group probably look at lot like those admitted to high intensity tertiary chronic pain management services such as Burwood Pain Management Centre here in Christchurch).  Most of the participants were female, European/white and married, and had chronic pain for an average of 10.7 years. Just over half were using opioid medication to manage their pain.

Along with the PCS, participants also completed some very common measures of disability (Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory – MPI) and quality of life (SF-36), and the CES-D which is a measure of depression.

Now here comes some statistical analysis: multiple hierarchical regression! Age, sex, duration of pain and use of opioids were entered into the equation and found to account for only 2.0% variance of the pain severity subscale of the MPI – but once the PCS was added in (subscales entered separately) an additional 14% of the variance was accounted for, but the helplessness subscale was the only one to contribute significantly to the overall variance.

When Pain Interference was  entered as the dependent variable, all the same demographic variables as above contributed a meagre 1.2% of the variance, but when the Pain Severity subscale scores were added, 25.5% of the variance was explained – while the combined PCS subscales contributed 6.5% of the variance. Again, helplessness was the only subscale to contribute to Pain Interference.

Moving to quality of life – the physical subscale of the SF-36 was used as the dependent variable, and once again the demographic variables accounted for only 1.5% variance in physical QOL, with Pain Severity accounting for 23%. PCS subscales contributed only 2.6% of the variance, with only the magnification subscale being identified as a unique contributor. When the mental health subscale was used, again demographics only accounted for 1.2% of variance, with pain severity accounting for 12.4% of the variance. This time, however, the PCS subscales contributed 19.5% of the variance with both Magnification and Helplessness contributing to the variance.

Finally, examining depression, demographics contributed a small amount of variance (3.3%), with pain severity additing 9.8% of variance. The PCS subscales were then entered and contributed a total of 21% to the prediction of depression with both Magnification and Helplessness contributing to the overall depression variance.

The so what factor

What does this actually mean in clinical practice? Well first of all this is a large group of patients, so we can draw some conclusions from the calculations – but we need to be a little cautious because these participants are a group who have managed to get into a tertiary pain management facility. They’re also a group with a large percentage using opioids, and they were pretty much all European – and from North America, not New Zealand. I’m not sure they look like the people who might commonly come into a community-based facility, or one where they’d be referred directly from a GP or primary care centre.

At the same time, while this group may not look like the people most commonly seen for pain management, they share some similar characteristics – they tend to magnify the “awfulness” of pain, and then feel helpless when their pain is bothering them. Surprisingly, I thought, ruminating or brooding on pain wasn’t a unique contributor and instead the helplessness scale contributed the most to pain severity, pain-related interference (disability associated with pain), poor mental health quality of life, and low mood, while magnification scale contributed to poorer physical health quality of life, mental health quality of life and low mood.

What this means for practice

The authors suggest that the construct measured by the helplessness subscale might be a factor underlying poor adaptation to life’s difficulties in general, leading to passivity and negative emotions. They also suggest that magnification might be a unique contributor to perceiving obstacles to doing the things we need to do every day, while hopelessness might mean people are less likely to participate in enjoyable activities and then in turn contribute to feeling low.

Importantly, the authors state: “We offer that simply collapsing the 3 dimensions of this phenomenon (ie, rumination, magnification, helplessness) may actually conceal nuanced relationships between specific dimensions of catastrophizing and outcomes that would might inform treatment approaches.” Looking at the overall scores without thinking about the subscales is going to give you less information to use for individualising your treatment.

In a clinical setting I’d be reviewing the individual subscales of the PCS alongside both disability and mood measures to see if the suggested relationships exist in the scores this person has given.

I’d be taking a look at the repertoire of coping strategies the person can identify – and more, I’d be looking at how flexibly they apply these strategies. Extending the range of strategies a person can use, and problem-solving ways to use these strategies in different activities and contexts is an important part of therapy, particularly occupational therapy and physiotherapy. Another approach you might consider is helping people return to enjoyable activities that are within their tolerance right here, right now. By building confidence that it’s possible to return to things that are fun we might counter the effects of helplessness, and help put pain back where it belongs – an experience that we can choose to respond to, or not.

I’d also be taking a look at their tendency to avoid feeling what their pain feels like, in other words I’d like to see if the person can mindfully and without judging, complete a body scan that includes the areas that are painful. This approach is intended to help people notice that alongside the painful areas are other nonpainful ones, and that they can successfully be with their pain and make room for their pain rather than attempting to block it out, or over-attend to it. The way mindfulness might work is by allowing people to experience the sensations without the judgement that the experience is bad, or indicates some terrible catastrophe. It allows people to step back from the immediate reaction “OMG that’s BAD” and to instead take time to view it as it actually is, without the emotional halo around it.

Pain catastrophising is a useful construct – but I think we need to become more nuanced in how we use the scores from the questionnaire.

Craner, J. R., Gilliam, W. P., & Sperry, J. A. (2016). Rumination, magnification, and helplessness: How do different aspects of pain catastrophizing relate to pain severity and functioning? Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(12), 1028-1035.


What do we do with those questionnaires (ii)

In my last post I wrote about the Pain Catastrophising Scale and a little about what the results might mean. I discussed the overall score suggesting a general tendency to “think the worst”, with the three subscales of magnifying or over-estimating the risk; ruminating or brooding on the experience; and helplessness or feeling overwhelmed and that there’s nothing to be done.  At the end of the post I briefly talked about how difficult it is to find a clinical reasoning model in physiotherapy or occupational therapy where this construct is integrated – making it difficult for us to know what to do differently in a clinical setting when a person presents with elevated scores.

In this post I want to show how I might use this questionnaire in my clinical reasoning.

Alison is a woman with low back pain, she’s been getting this niggling ache for some months, but last week she was weeding her garden and when she stood up she felt a sharp pain in her lower back that hasn’t settled since. She’s a busy schoolteacher with her own two children aged 8 and 10, and doesn’t have much time for exercise after teaching a full day, and bringing children’s work home to grade at night. She’s completed the PCS and obtained an overall score of 33, with her elevated scores on the magnifying subscale contributing the most to her total score.

Her twin sister Belinda has coincidentally developed low back pain at the same time, only hers started after she had to change the tyre on her car over the weekend. She’s a busy retail manager preparing for the upcoming Christmas season, and also has two children just a bit younger than her sister’s two. She’s completed the PCS and obtained an overall score of 34, but her score on ruminating is much higher than her scores on the other two scales, and this is the main reason her overall score is high.

What difference does Belinda’s elevated score on ruminating mean for us as clinicians? What do we do when we see Alison’s overall elevated score?

Common themes

Both Alison and Belinda live busy lives, and have lots of stressors within their lives. While they both have similar presentations, we might go about helping them regain confidence in their bodies slightly differently. I’ll begin with Belinda who might, because of the elevated ruminating score, have trouble getting off to sleep and might spend more time attending to her back pain than her sister. Ruminating is that endless brainworm that keeps on dragging our attention back to the thing we’re worried about (or perhaps the problem we’re trying to solve).  Alison, on the other hand, might be more inclined to monitor her back pain and imagine all sorts of dire outcomes – perhaps that the pain will never go away, that it’s going to “cripple” her, and that it’s going to be a major problem while she’s at work.

While both sisters would benefit from learning to move with more confidence, to relax the muscle tension that occurs when back pain is present, and to return to their usual daily activities, we probably need to help Alison learn more about her back pain (for example, explain that most back pain settles down quite quickly, that it’s helped by moving again in a graduated way, and that we’ve ruled out any sinister reason for her developing her pain). During treatment sessions where we help her learn to move more normally, we might spend more time giving neutral messages about fluctuations in her pain (for example, we might let her know that it’s normal to have a temporary increase in pain when we start moving again, and that this is a good sign that she’s beginning to use her body normally). If we notice her looking anxious during a new movement or exercise we might take a moment to ask her about her concerns and provide her with neutral and clear information about what’s going on so she becomes more realistic in her judgements about what her pain means.

For Belinda I might be inclined to help her deal with her thoughts in a mindful way, so she can notice her thoughts and her body sensations without judging them, bringing her mind back to breathing, or to noticing the equally present but less “alerting” body sensations she may be experiencing. For example I might ask her to do a mindfulness of breath exercise where, as she notices her mind wandering off to worries or concerns, I would ask her to gently notice that this has happened, acknowledge her mind for trying to help solve an insoluble problem, and bring her attention back to her breathing. I might ask her to notice body sensations including those that are uncomfortable and around the area of her most intense pain, taking care to be aware not only of the painful sensations she’s experiencing, but also associated body responses such as breath holding, or muscle tension. I might guide her to also be aware of a neutral but generally unloved area like her left earlobe (when did you last attend to what your left earlobe felt like?), or her navel. Because at the same time as she’s noticing the painful areas of her body, she’s likely to be trying hard to avoid “going there” with the result that her mind (trying really hard to help her protect herself) actually goes there more often! (don’t believe me? Don’t think of a big fat spider crawling down your shoulder – betcha did!!). Belinda can use the same approach when she’s trying to get off to sleep – by non-judgmentally noticing her body and what’s going on, she can be aware of what it feels like – but not get hooked up in alarming appraisals of what “might” happen. In a clinic setting I might ask her to use this same mindfulness approach when we’re doing a new exercise, or returning to a new activity. She could take time to really feel the movements, to be “in” her body rather than her head, and in doing so gradually reduce the tendency for her mind to take off in new and frightening directions.

Using the PCS is not about becoming psychologists: it’s about being aware of what the person in front of us is telling us about their experience, and then tuning into that and responding appropriately while we do what we do. Our job isn’t to replace a psychologist’s contribution – but to use the results of psychometric questionnaires to augment and support the work we do in a setting where people are actively engaged in learning about their bodies. I think that’s a priceless opportunity.

Schutze, R., Slater, H., O’Sullivan, P., Thornton, J., Finlay-Jones, A., & Rees, C. S. (2014). Mindfulness-based functional therapy: A preliminary open trial of an integrated model of care for people with persistent low back pain. Frontiers in Psychology Vol 5 Aug 2014, ArtID 839, 5.

Tsui, P., Day, M., Thorn, B., Rubin, N., Alexander, C., & Jones, R. (2012). The communal coping model of catastrophizing: Patient-health provider interactions. Pain Medicine, 13(1), 66-79.


What do we do with those questionnaires?

Courtesy of many influences in pain management practice, you’d have to have been hiding under a rock or maybe be some sort of dinosaur not to have noticed the increasing emphasis on using questionnaires to measure factors such as pain catastrophising, depression or avoidance. The problem is I’m not sure we’ve all been certain about what to do with the results. It’s not uncommon for me to hear people saying “Oh but once I see psychosocial factors there, I just refer on”, or “they’re useful when the person’s not responding to my treatment, but otherwise…”, “we use them for outcome measures, but they’re not much use for my treatment planning”.

I think many clinicians think psychosocial questionnaires are all very well – but “intuition”  will do “…and what difference would it make to my treatment anyway?”

Today I thought I’d deconstruct the Pain Catastrophising Scale and show what it really means in clinical practice.

The Pain Catastrophising Scale is a well-known and very useful measure of an individual’s tendency to “think the worst” when they’re considering their pain. Catastrophising is defined as “an exaggerated negative mental set brought to bear during actual or anticipated painful experience” (Sullivan et al., 2001). The questionnaire was first developed by Sullivan, Bishop and Pivik in 1995, and the full copy including an extensive manual is available here. Keep returning to that page because updates are made frequently, providing more information about the utility of the measure.

The questionnaire itself is a 13-item measure using a 0 – 4 Likert-type scale from 0 = “not at all” to 4 = “all the time”. Respondents are instructed to “indicate the degree to which you have these thoughts and feelings when you are experiencing pain”.

There are three subscales measuring three major dimensions of catastrophising: rumination “I can’t stop thinking about how much it hurts”; magnification “I worry that something serious may happen”; and helplessness “It’s awful and I feel that it overwhelms me”.

To score the instrument, simply sum all the responses to all 13 items, but to get a better idea of how to help a person, the subscale calculations involve the following:

Rumination: sum items 8,9,10, and 11

Magnification: sum items 6,7, and 13

Helplessness: sum items 1,2,3,4,5, and 12

There’s not a lot of point in having numbers without knowing what they mean, so the manual provides means and standard deviations relating to a population individuals with injury leading to lost time from work in Nova Scotia, Canada.

thingClinicians are typically interested in whether the person sitting in front of them is likely to have trouble managing their pain, so the manual also provides “cut off”scores for what could be described as “clinically relevant” levels of catastrophising. A total score of 30 or more is thought to represent the 75th percentile of scores obtained by individuals with chronic pain.

The “so what” question

Cutting to the chase, the question is “so what”? What difference will getting this information from someone make to my clinical reasoning?

Leaving aside the enormous body of literature showing a relationship between high levels of catastrophising and generally poor responses to traditional treatments that address pain alone (including surgery for major joint replacement, recovery from multiple orthopaedic trauma, low back pain, shoulder pain etc), I think it’s helpful to dig down into what the three subscales tell us about the person we’re working with. It’s once we understand these tendencies that we can begin to work out how our approach with someone who has high levels of rumination might differ from what we’ll do when working with someone who has high levels of helplessness.

As an aside and being upfront, I think it’s important to remember that a questionnaire score will only tell you what a person wants you to know. Questionnaires are NOT X-rays of the mind! They’re just convenient ways to ask the same questions more than once, to collect the answers and compare what this person says with the responses from a whole lot of other people, and they allow us to organise information in a way that we might not think to do otherwise.  I also think it’s really important NOT to label a person as “a catastrophiser” as if this is a choice the person has made. People will have all sorts of reasons for tending to think the way they do, and judging someone is unprofessional and unethical.


Rumination is that thing we do when a thought just won’t get out of our mind. You know the one – the ear worm, the endless round and round, especially at night, when we can’t get our mind off the things we’re worrying about. If a person has trouble with being able to drag his or her attention away, there are some useful things we can suggest. One theory about rumination is that it’s there as a sort of problem solving strategy, but one that has gone haywire.

Mindfulness can help so that people can notice their thoughts but not get hooked up into them. I like to use this both as a thought strategy, but also as a way of scanning the body and just noticing not only where the pain is experienced, but also where it is not.

“Fifteen minutes of worry” can also help – setting aside one specific time of the day (I like 7.00pm – 7.15pm) where you have to write down everything you’re worried about for a whole fifteen minutes without stopping. By also telling yourself throughout the day “I’m not worrying about this until tonight” and afterwards saying “I’ve already worried about this so I don’t need to right now”, worrying and ruminating can be contained. By being present with the thoughts during that 15 minutes, the threat value of the thought content is also reduced.


This is the tendency to think of the worst possible thing rather than the most likely outcome, and it’s common! Magnification can really increase the distress and “freeze” response to a situation. If a person is thinking of all the worst possible outcomes it’s really hard for them to focus on what is actually happening in the here and now. There’s some adaptive features to magnification – if I’ve prepared for the worst, and it doesn’t happen, then I’m in a good situation to go on, but in some people this process becomes so overwhelming that their ability to plan is stopped in its tracks.

Once again, mindfulness can be really useful here, particularly paying attention to what is actually happening in the here and now, rather than what might happen or what has happened. Mindful attention to breathing, body and thoughts can help reduce the “freeze” response, and allow some space for problem solving.

Of course, accurate information presented in nonthreatening terms and in ways the person can process is important to de-threaten the experience of pain. This is at the heart of “explain pain” approaches – and it’s useful. What’s important, however, is to directly address the main concern of the person – and it may not be the pain itself, but the beliefs about what pain will mean in terms of being a good parent, holding down a job, maintaining intimacy, being responsible and reliable. It’s crucial to find out what the person is really concerned about – and then ensure your “reassurance” is really reassuring.


Helplessness is that feeling of “there’s nothing I can do to avoid this awful outcome so I won’t do anything”. It’s a precursor to feelings of depression and certainly part of feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

When a person is feeling helpless it’s important to help them regain a sense of self efficacy, or confidence that they CAN do something to help themselves, to exert some sort of control over their situation. It might be tempting to aim for focusing on pain intensity and helping them gain control over pain intensity, but because it’s often so variable and influenced by numerous factors, it might be more useful to help the person achieve some small goals that are definitely achievable. I often begin with breathing because it’s a foundation for mindfulness, relaxation and has a direct influence over physiological arousal.

You might also begin with some exercise or daily activities that are well within the capabilities of the person you’re seeing. I like walking as a first step (no pun intended) because it doesn’t require any equipment, it’s something we all do, and it can be readily titrated to add difficulty. It’s also something that can be generalised into so many different environments. In a physiotherapy situation I’d like to see PTs consider exercises as their medium for helping a person experience a sense of achievement, of control, rather than a means to an end (ie to “fix” some sort of deficit).

To conclude
Questionnaires don’t add value until they’re USED. I think it’s unethical to administer a questionnaire without knowing what it means, without using the results, and without integrating the results into clinical reasoning. The problem is that so many questionnaires are based on psychological models and these haven’t been integrated into physiotherapy or occupational therapy clinical reasoning models. Maybe it’s time to work out how do this?

Sullivan M J L, Bishop S, Pivik J. The Pain Catastrophizing Scale: Development and validation. Psychol Assess 1995, 7: 524-532.

Main, C. J., Foster, N., & Buchbinder, R. (2010). How important are back pain beliefs and expectations for satisfactory recovery from back pain? Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 24(2), 205-217. doi:doi:10.1016/j.berh.2009.12.012

Sturgeon, J. A., Zautra, A. J., & Arewasikporn, A. (2014). A multilevel structural equation modeling analysis of vulnerabilities and resilience resources influencing affective adaptation to chronic pain. PAIN®, 155(2), 292-298. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2013.10.007