Pain model – helping to target change


In my recent post on behavioural approaches to pain management, I had a number of commentators ask why do it, why not focus on pain intensity, and aren’t I invalidating a person’s experience if I target a person’s response to their experience. Today’s post will explore some of these points.

I suppose my first point needs to distinguish between pain as an experience, and pain behaviour – or what we do when we experience pain. I like to use a pretty old “model” or diagram to help untangle these concepts. It’s drawn from Loeser’s “Onion ring” model, and he wrote about this way back in the early 1980’s. This is my interpretation of that way of thinking about the person experiencing pain. It’s not intended to represent Truth – but to help us to get our heads around an individual’s truth, or their experience. It’s one way to consider the factors we’ve learned are associated with human pain. It should be evaluated in terms of its utility and practical usefulness for a person experiencing pain, and for clinicians hoping to help them.

The “BIO”

Firstly, we have all the neurobiological processes involved in transmitting nociceptive information throughout the body. Much of this information never reaches conscious awareness – activity in nociceptors occurs all the time, and we have rapid reflexive responses to this such as blinking, shifting in a chair, swaying while standing and so on. A whole lot of neurobiological activity occurs as this information reaches conscious awareness – much of this activity occurs above the brainstem. In fact, if we look carefully at neurobiological activity, much of the reason we never notice reflex responses to nociception is because we have a pretty effective inhibitory system that’s operating constantly to limit how much nociceptive activity hits consciousness. That’s all part of cortical and brainstem (yeah – BRAIN) processes. If anyone learns neurobiology of pain and doesn’t include attention, motivation, emotion, expectations then they’re missing an enormous chunk of what nociception and pain are about.

Added to this neurobiological information are another whole bunch of physiological and hormonal responses – and these are incredibly complex and often omitted from our discussions. For example, men and women differ in their hormone production, and this means more women experience persistent pain, women have lower pain tolerance, and respond to nociceptive information more quickly and at lower thresholds than men.

Suffice to say, there are a whole bunch of biological processes that are integral to our experience of pain and to nociceptive transmission, transduction and perception. So if anyone should suggest that a “biopsychosocial” model of pain does not include BIO – go wash your mouth out please.

Pain-the-experience

The next aspect of pain that Loeser included was “pain-the-experience” – the subjective, personal, unshareable “what it is like to experience pain” part. This encompasses the qualia – the sensory qualities of pain, and includes intensity and location. Pain is always experienced as having a negative or aversive quality, so we know that the urge to avoid or take action to reduce, and indeed our tendency to attend to this experience is part of a human experience of pain. Note that Loeser (and I) don’t include appraisal at this point! In other words, this is the “ouch” that a baby feels when we perform a Guthrie heel prick test. It’s that moment when scalding coffee hits your lap, before you’ve realised you’ve spilled your coffee.

But just to complicate things here – unless we’re newborns, we’re always aware of context and pretty much once we learn language, we’re interpreting when/where/how/why events are happening. This means that factors such as expectations, past learning, predictions we make about “what next” always inform “pain-the-experience”. Even before we’re consciously aware of these influences! So technically, as soon as we recognise “ouch” we’re already invoking a whole bunch of higher cortical processes into our experience. This matters because pain is a conscious experience, and requires perception before it can be experienced.

Judgement or appraisal

The next “ring” of Loeser’s model was called “suffering” – I’ve translated this into a cognitive process of “appraisal” because while pain is inherently tainted with negative emotional valence and a motivational urge to avoid, it’s also possible to view our experience of pain in different ways. Some commonplace examples are the jab from a vaccination – many of us will welcome that nociceptive input, and judge the pain to be negligible. Others who may be less comfortable with a vaccination might view it more negatively and be more aware of that pain. People who run or train in a gym might appraise the pain from working hard “feel the burn” as a sign that they’ve done enough to make performance gains. And some of us who live with persistent pain such as fibromyalgia might notice pain and consider it to be “just a nuisance”.

Suffering is an interesting concept, and I prefer to take Erik Cassel’s definition of it: suffering refers to the loss of a sense of self. A paper cut typically doesn’t lead to a loss of sense of self, while low back pain that remains for many months might be far more likely to erode that sense of “who I am and what I can do”.

Judgements and appraisals are influenced by a whole lot of factors – socio-cultural norms (I’m in a rugby-mad country, if a rugby player experiences pain on the field, he or she may well grit teeth and keep going, believing that it’s not OK to “give in” to pain – the appraisal might be “this isn’t so bad, I can still keep going”. Socio-cultural norms are often implicit – we absorb them effortlessly within our own cultural context, and we’re quite capable of holding different implicit norms depending on our current proximity to our social group. Consider the rugby player who will brush off an on-the-field injury but when getting a splinter might feel a little sick. The meanings we attribute to our pain influence how willing we are to go with them – tattoos and body piercings and body suspensions are really good examples of times when we’re OK to experience pain in the pursuit of something else, similarly post-surgical pain after joint arthroplasty.

When appraisals are unhelpful is when we get tripped up. When a person holds an inaccurate understanding of what’s happening – thinking, perhaps, that this back pain is a sign of cancer metastasising, or the end of a career as a sportsman, or an indication of some dire outcome, then a couple of things happen. Firstly, negative emotions are likely to rise, along with sympathetic arousal (the two systems are linked in the experience of pain), and then what we do about pain also begin to turn to short-term over long-term outcomes.

Pain behaviours

Pain behaviours are what we do when we experience pain, and they’re shaped both by evolution and by socio-cultural norms, as well as what we think is going on. I wrote about pain behaviour recently – click

Pain behaviours are the only part of “what it is like to experience pain” that we can observe.

Let me say that again – what we do about pain is the only part of the pain experience that a person who is NOT The Person In Pain that we can share.

Pain behaviour includes everything a person does and says in relation to their pain, both reflexive and automatic actions that we’re not aware of, as well as those we are aware of. Some of the behaviours we do are reflex responses (blinking and tearing up), some of them are not. Some of them are well-learned – we’ve been doing them since we were tiny kids. Others are things we’ve learned to do, perhaps on the advice of someone else, or because we’ve observed someone else, or because we think it might help or it’s worked once before.

The thing is – pain behaviours are malleable. They can and do change. Again, read my earlier post on how pain behaviours can be changed, and know that just because a behaviour has changed, the person’s experience of pain may not. In other words, while I move pretty normally, and to many onlookers I don’t appear to have pain – I still do.

Social context

I’ve already alluded to the influence of contextual factors. Things we’re aware of – prevailing attitudes in our immediate social group, our community, our spouse, our treatment providers. Things we’re often less aware – of implicit attitudes about gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, supposed pain mechanisms, visibility of tissue damage and so on. And we are ALL influenced by these implicit socially constructed attitudes and beliefs, people with pain and their clinicians and their families and their communities….

I often use this way of exploring factors involved in why a person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be done to reduce distress and disability. I might package the conversation in various ways – perhaps more complex if I expand on some aspects, perhaps less so if the person doesn’t want or need to explore something (often this is the neurobiological part). While it’s imperfect remember that the purpose of a model like this is contextual. I am not hoping to represent Truth as a universal law about “how pain works”. I AM hoping to explore useful elements for a particular purpose. One purpose might be to demonstrate that emotions and appraisals influence pain behaviour. Another might be to introduce medical students to the complex factors that might be involved in their interpretation of a patient’s distress. And another to help someone understand why he avoids a movement in one context but not in another. And even another might be to help someone know why she has such a panicky feeling when she’s in the middle of a flare-up.

As a pragmatist, and basing my practice on approaches that might help this person achieve a specific something in this moment, I use models like these to build therapeutic alliance, to enable the person to be willing to play with new ways of being, and to help them recognise that the target for change might not be what they initially think is relevant.

Loeser, JD. (1980). Perspectives on pain. In P. Turner (Ed.), Clinical Pharmay & Therapeutics (pp. 313-316). London: Macmillan.

Loeser, JD. (1982). Concepts of pain. In M. Stanton-Hicks & R. Boas (Eds.), Chronic low back pain (pp. 145-148). New York: Raven Press.

…the “so what” question and why it matters to take a break from work


At the conclusion of each of the courses I teach at University of Otago, I ask students the “so what” question. So what that we learned about neurobiology? So what that we discussed social constructs and how they shape pain behaviour? So what that we learn that thoughts and beliefs influence our pain experience? What does it all mean when we’re sitting with a person experiencing pain?

This last week I’ve been on a brief trip to the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand Aotearoa. It is a wild and isolated part of our country. So wild that in parts the annual rainfall is over 6,000mm (see the map below!), and the wind blows so that the trees grow almost horizontally. For two days there was no power (and thus no internet, no cellphone cover!) and the gravel road to our campsite was closed until 7.00pm while the power lines were being replaced… I won’t talk about the sandflies and mosquitoes – the size of helicopters!! Well perhaps I exaggerate…

Taking a break from talking pain brings me to my “so what” question. Why do I spend my time trying to help people, especially clinicians, learn about pain? Why am I so focused on bringing a narrative that says “we can’t reduce or remove all pain” and at the same time “it’s possible to live well with pain”? What is my “so what”?

Stepping back from the crabby discourse I see so often on social media – like whether hands on or hands off is preferable, whether pain is sensation or perception, whether exercise should be this or that – I think my purpose is to remind everyone, and especially clinicians, that when we’re working with someone who has weird pain that hangs around our job is to find out what this person’s main concern is. And to remember that irrespective of how much we help someone change their pain, ultimately, they will go on to live their own life. Not ours. Theirs.

It struck me from time to time as I swatted sandflies (helicopter sized ones, of course), that many of us work within inflexible processes and systems that demand we identify goals after only just meeting a person. It struck me that the people who develop policy and who get involved in establishing processes are not engaged in public discourse, at least, not in social media where so many of “us” hang out. I pondered how it is that the collective weight of allied health – numbering far more than our medical colleagues – has not yet shifted our conversations about best ways to help people with pain away from symptom reduction, despite our lack of success when it comes to pain. How we continually fixate on “if the pain goes, the person will go back to normal”. How we tout exercise as The Cure despite such small effect sizes on pain intensity, quality and disability. And for exercise, we could substitute needles, manual therapy, taping, medications…. How we want simple recipes, algorithms that sort people into “responders” and “non-responders” while failing to acknowledge that so far we haven’t achieved this and besides these approaches assume that everyone wants the same outcome.

Taking a break from work offers me a chance to refresh my perspective. My pain, it must be said, doesn’t take a break. And that, folks, is the reality for so many people in our communities. Because persistent pain persists. When we’re at work, and when we’re on holiday. When we’re trying to sleep, and when we’re busy with family. And we all come from what was our normal lifestyle. And some clinicians think that if only we would – understand pain neurobiology, pace, exercise, eat right, use mindfulness, check our thinking and get rid of maladaptive beliefs… then life would be fine. But would that life be what I want? Would it look like my life? Would I be able to be ME inside that regimen of all those things?

Clinicians, we can often omit to ask “what’s your main concern about your pain?” And we often forget to find out what that person values in their life. Our goal setting turns out to be OUR goals, often based on pain reduction – or focused on achieving X, Y, Z. Doing this means attention is paid to the end point – but then the process of getting there is left out. And life is a process (OK a journey) not a goal (OK a destination).

As I approach my teaching this year, and my interactions online, I want to emphasise respecting the autonomy and strengths people living with pain bring with them. That a person’s life and choices are theirs to make – and if we try to change people, we’ll fail. We can invite people to experiment with, play with, test, try out different ways of being, but unless we understand a person’s values and work with them, we’re probably not going get more than superficial compliance. Let’s be respectful and honour the complexity of each individual we encounter – and let’s not treat them as part of an algorithm.

Modifying pain behaviour (1)


In my post last week I talked about pain behaviour and why pain behaviours are often a good treatment target in pain rehabilitation. I also talked about pain intensity rating scales and how, because rating scales are a form of communication, the numbers we obtain from them aren’t a true measure of pain: they reflect what the person wants to communicate about their pain to someone at that time and in that context.

This week I want to discuss modifying pain behaviour, and believe me, we are all in the business of modifying behaviour even if we think we’re doing something completely different!

Ethics

One of the issues about modifying behaviour is addressed right at the beginning of Fordyce’s chapter on “Techniques of behavioral analysis and behavior change” and this is the ethical issue of informed consent. It’s important because behaviour change using behaviour modification techniques can operate without the person’s awareness (and does so All The Time). As clinicians, though, we have an obligation to ensure we obtain informed consent from our patient/client before we embark on any treatment. Of course, you and I know that this doesn’t happen in the way that I’d like to see it! When I’m a patient, I’d like to have my options laid out in front of me, with the pro’s and con’s over both short and long term clearly explained. Then I can choose the option that I prefer. But actually, most of the time I’ve received treatment from any clinician, I’ve been given little or no information about alternatives – it’s been assumed that I’ll go along with what the clinician has chosen for me. How’s that for informed consent?

Back to behaviour change. Fordyce clearly details the approach he prefers which is clear discussion with the person about what is proposed – that “well” behaviour will be reinforced via social interaction and “praise”, and “unwell” behaviour will either be ignored or redirected.

Behaviour change done badly

Where I’ve seen behaviour modification done badly is where the clinician fails to indicate to the person that this is the approach being taken (ie no informed consent), where this is applied to all people irrespective of their treatment goals and without discriminating the types of behaviours to be modified, and where it’s applied without empathy or compassion. The kind of “one size fits all” approach. More about this in a minute.

Fordyce points out that “almost every behaviour change problem can be analysed into one or a combination of these three possibilities: 1) Some behaviour is not occurring often enough and needs to be increased or strengthened; 2) some behaviour is occurring too frequently and needs to be diminished in frequency or strength or eliminated; and 3) there is behaviour missing from the person’s repertoire that is needed and that therefore must be learned or acquired.”

Behavioural analysis (lite – more to come in another post!)

So we can work out which behaviours to focus on, as clinicians we need to do some behavioural analysis. This is often best carried out by observing the person – best in his or her natural environment because the contextual cues are present there – but at a pinch, in a clinic setting. I like video for analysing behaviour, particularly something like limping or guarding or compensatory movements, but larger repertoires of behaviour can be self-reported. For example, if someone recognises that they’re resting more often than they want (especially useful if the person values returning to work), then the person can time how long they rest for and work to reduce that time. Fitness trackers or movement trackers can be great for monitoring this. Other options include asking the person’s family about the particular behaviours they notice as indicators that the person is having trouble with their pain: people around the person with pain often know what’s happening well before the person has said anything!

Now this raises my earlier point about lacking empathy or compassion. It doesn’t feel normal to ignore someone who is wincing, looking “pained” or talking about how much they hurt. And this is why, I think, many clinicians don’t enjoy using behaviour modification in a deliberate way – it either feels unsympathetic, so we avoid it, or we do a 180 turn and we apply “ignore all pain behaviour” indiscriminately. Fordyce definitely did NOT suggest this!

Being human in behaviour change

So, how do we approach a person who is distressed? Do we ignore them or comfort them or what? In true time-honoured tradition, I’m going to say “It depends.”

First, we need to analyse the function of the distress in this context, and in the context of our treatment goals. Remember informed consent! We need to clearly articulate and obtain agreement for our behavioural target, and if someone is distressed and this isn’t our target, then we need to respond in an empathic and supportive way. If we’ve observed, however, that the person we’re working with is often distressed as we begin a new activity, perhaps one that pulls the person towards doing something unfamiliar or a bit scary, then we might have a conversation with the person about what we’ve seen, and with agreement, begin to modify our response.

When I describe “function” of distress in this context, I mean “what does the distress elicit from us, and for the person?” – what are the consequences of that distress for the person? If we reduce our expectations from the person, or the person avoids doing the new activity, then we can probably identify that the distress is functioning to reduce the demands we’re putting on the person. Our behaviour as a clinician is being modified by the behaviour of the person – and probably unwittingly. Reducing demands reduces anxiety, a bit, and it may be anxiety about doing that movement (or experiencing pain as a result of doing that movement) that’s eliciting distress. I wouldn’t say being distressed in this context is deliberate – but it’s functioning to draw us away from maintaining the treatment goals we developed with the person.

So what can we do? In this instance, we might remind the person of our agreement to stick to our plan of activity, we can acknowledge that they’re feeling anxious (that’s probably why we’re doing this activity in the first place!), we can reassure the person that we trust that they can do this (boosting self-efficacy via verbal encouragement), and we can maintain our treatment goal.

That’s hard!

Yep. Using this approach is not for the faint-hearted. It means we need to be observant, to always be thinking not just about the form of behaviour we’re seeing, but about its function. We need to monitor our own behaviour (verbal, facial expressions, subtle body shifts, all the non-verbal “tells” we make), and we need to change our own responses to what the person does. And often we find this self-awareness difficult to do. Most of our responses are “automatic” or habitual, and behaviour modification means we need to interrupt our habitual responses so we can help our patient/client do what matters to them.

For a brilliant description of Fordcye’s approach as applied in a case study, Fordyce, Shelton & Dundore (1982) is a great example of how a seriously disabled person was helped via this approach. Remember, this was carried out with the person’s full consent! Chapter 4 of Fordyce’s Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness gives the best blow-by-blow description of how to go about this. And for a rebuttal to some of the criticisms of a behavioural approach to pain management, Fordyce, Roberts and Sternbach (1985) offer some very helpful points. That paper also offers some of the best analyses of pain behaviour and why it’s needed as part of pain rehabilitation.

Fordyce, W. E., Shelton, J. L., & Dundore, D. E. (1982). The modification of avoidance learning pain behaviors. Journal of behavioral medicine, 5(4), 405-414.

Fordyce, W. E., Roberts, A. H., & Sternbach, R. A. (1985). The behavioral management of chronic pain: a response to critics. Pain, 22(2), 113-125.

Pain behaviour: what is it and what do we do about it?


I’m re-reading Fordyce’s classic Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness and once again I’m struck by how many of the concepts he introduced and systematically investigated are either mis-interpreted and ignored in our current approaches to helping people with persistent pain. Today I’ll explore just a tiny portion of what Fordyce described.

Pain behaviour refers to all the observable actions we do in relation to experiencing pain (NB some people include thoughts as well, but for today I’ll just focus on observable actions). There are roughly two groups of actions: those involuntary ones that we can call nocifensive responses that include reflex withdrawal underpinned by spinal reflexes but including brainstem circuits (see Barik, Hunter Thompson, Seltzer, Ghitani & Chesler, 2018); and those that are developed and shaped by learning (operant conditioning as well as social learning).

When I write about learning, I often have comments about this suggesting people have a choice about what they do, and that this learning must involve conscious awareness – the upshot of these comments is the idea that if we just tell someone that they’re doing something, information alone will be sufficient to change how often they’re doing it. Well, I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever chewed your nails, changed your diet, decided to go on a social media diet, or do more exercise, you’ll know that there’s an enormous gap between knowing about and being able to follow through. So let me review some of the processes involved in learning and pain behaviour.

Pain behaviour probably has evolutionary significance. What we do when we’re sore acts as a signal to others, whether those actions are voluntary or involuntary. For example, while limping off-loads weight from the sore limb, it can also function to let other people know there’s something wrong. Groaning or sighing also lets people around us know that we’re not OK. Remembering that we’re a social species, being able to let others know that we need help – or not to do what we just did – means we’re more likely to receive attention, and also to warn others about potential danger. Of course, by eliciting help, we’re kinda obligated to help others when they do the same, which may be why when we see someone demonstrating prolonged pain behaviours we tend to feel annoyed: we might be asking ourselves “If they’re not going to reciprocate, why would I help? Dem’s the rules”

Now pain behaviour is also subject to learning principles. In other words, the specific behaviours we do develop in form and frequency depending on context. The underlying analysis goes like this: an antecedent is present (maybe it’s a particular person, location, or occasion), the behaviour occurs, then something in the environment/context occurs – and it’s this “something in the environment/context” that influences whether the behaviour is repeated, and/or the frequency of that behaviour. The easiest example of this is when you watch a three-year-old playing just a little distance from Mum and Dad. When she trips and falls, she’ll probably get up and brush herself down – and then you’ll see her look for Mum or Dad, and if they’re close enough, she’ll probably let out a bit of wail. In the context of Mum and Dad and her falling over, she’s learned that if she cries she’s likely to get a cuddle or some attention, and this is nice. In the absence of Mum and Dad, if she trips she’s less likely to cry because she’s not likely to get that cuddle. Clever huh?

So if that kind of learning occurs from the time we’re little, it’s easy to see how rapidly this pattern of behaving can become habitual, and when it’s habitual it’s unlikely to be something the child is aware she’s doing. Crying, or seeking attention, when we’re sore is something we’ve learned to do from an early age and while the form of that attention likely differs as we mature, the underlying mechanisms still apply (please don’t scream the place down when you go get your Covid vaccination! It’s OK for babies to cry, but not quite so socially appropriate for grown-ups to cry!).

How does the form of that behaviour change? It’s called “shaping” and it is something that occurs naturally through social learning, and it can also occur in a planned way. Take the example of the three-year-old falling and crying: crying is probably OK outdoors where there’s plenty of room and not too much attention being paid to the interactions between parents and child. Take that same behaviour indoors, perhaps in a supermarket or worse – a quiet waiting room – and it’s likely the parents will shush the child more quickly, and be a little more firm about any ongoing wailing. The context is different, the parents respond differently, and the child learns that it’s not OK to cry loudly where there are other people who might not approve. Over time children learn that in different contexts, different ways to attract attention are required. Clearly there’s more technical language we can use to describe this process, but for our purposes this is enough.

Why do we care about this?

Pain behaviour is normal. It’s something we all do. Mostly it functions in a positive way. We signal to others that we need help, we protect the sore body part, and gradually we recover and resume normal life. In some contexts, though, the tendency to continue doing pain behaviours outlives its welcome. In persistent pain it’s particularly problematic, but it’s also problematic in acute pain situations.

Let’s take the example of the dreaded pain rating scale. The 0 = no pain to 10 = most severe pain I can imagine scale. In the context of an emergency room, being asked to rate pain is a quick and very practical way for clinicians to decide how severe the presumed injury/tissue damage is, whether the person needs analgesia, and whether they’re responding to it. Give a number less than 3 or 4 and you’re probably not going to get a lot of pain relief. Give a number closer to 10, and you’ll get something. Give a number greater than 10 and you may get raised eyebrows. In an experiment by Herta Flor (Flor, Knost & Birbaumer, 2002), participants were given an electric shock and asked to rate their pain intensity (also nociceptive detection threshold (aka pain threshold) and pain tolerance). After they’d rated their pain over several trials, they were given one of two conditions: one in which they were given smiley faces and money when their rating was higher than their average rating for the previous trials, and one in which they were given a sad smiley when their rating was lower than their average. Flor and colleagues found that those people who had been given positive smiley faces for higher pain ratings rated their pain intensity significantly higher than those who had been given neutral or negative smileys.

This experiment doesn’t reflect changes in pain intensity. And this is a critical point to note! The stimuli were the same across both groups. What changed was the response offered to participants after they rated their pain. In other words, behaviour associated with experiencing pain and the resultant rewards given for higher ratings was reinforced.

This experiment, along with a large number of others, is one reason why I don’t like pain intensity measures being taken at every treatment session. Pain intensity ratings are behaviours subject to the contingencies that all behaviour is subject to – people learn what to do, and they do it. And they’re unaware of this process.

We often rely on pain intensity ratings in both experimental studies and clinical practice. Unfortunately, while a numeric rating scale or visual analogue scale are quick and dirty, they’re not like a pain thermometer. We just don’t have an objective measure of pain intensity. And we forget this.

Where am I going with this?

A couple of points. I don’t think we can always influence a person’s experience of their pain. This means that we’re often needing to influence what they do about it – because prolonged distress and disability is not good for anyone. Given the social nature of our species, and the involuntary nature of our response to another person’s distress, we’re inclined to try to reduce distress by offering comfort. Nothing wrong with that except where it gets in the way of the person beginning to do things for themselves. As clinicians we need to reinforce actions a person does to increase their capabilities. We also need to limit our reinforcement of illness behaviour, and we need to do this with the consent of the person – being open about why we’re doing this. Remember people learn this stuff without knowing they’re learning it! This means that as clinicians we must stop judging people and what they do in response to pain. Pain behaviour is learned over a loooong time, and it’s reinforced in so many places. People don’t do pain behaviour on purpose. So we can’t judge people as being “non-copers” or having “exaggerated illness behaviour” – we can just gently show the person what happens, why it happens, and what the effect of that pattern of behaving is having on their life.

The second point is that we can’t treat pain ratings as Truth with a T, and think that we’re getting a pure measure of pain intensity – because rating pain on a scale is a behaviour, and it’s influenced in exactly the same way as all behaviours are. This doesn’t mean ignoring someone’s pain intensity – it just means we need to listen to what the person is trying to communicate.

Barik, A., Thompson, J. H., Seltzer, M., Ghitani, N., & Chesler, A. T. (2018). A Brainstem-Spinal Circuit Controlling Nocifensive Behavior. Neuron, 100(6), 1491-1503 e1493. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.10.037

Flor, Herta, Knost, Bärbel, & Birbaumer, Niels. (2002). The role of operant conditioning in chronic pain: an experimental investigation. Pain, 95(1), 111-118. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0304-3959(01)00385-2

Musing on “the social” in pain rehabilitation


What do we think about when we consider “the social” as a factor in pain rehabilitation? Do we think of socioeconomic status? Maybe employment status? Perhaps societal attitudes towards pain and recovery? Do we ask if the person has someone they trust in their life? Maybe we even discuss how a relationship is going, whether the person sees their friends and family?

Have we forgotten that possibly the most potent influences on pain behaviour are the people around the person we’re seeing?

It will be no surprise to anyone reading my work over the past 10 or more years (yes, really! it HAS been that long!) that I love reading older pain theorists, researchers and historic approaches to pain. We can learn so much from the pioneers in this area – people like Waddell, Loeser, Main, and Fordyce. While some of the details of theoretical advances may have been superseded, the ideas they promoted remain as potent as ever.

Fordyce, in particular, attracts my interest. Bill Fordyce was a clinical psychologist who pioneered behavioural approaches to reducing disability for people living with persistent pain. Rather than offering repeated surgeries or medications, Fordyce looked to how what we do (behaviour) is reinforced by people and situations around us. From his work, we learned about activity pacing (decoupling the relationship between activity and pain by adopting a quota-based approach to activity), time contingent medication (using medications according to a time schedule rather than “as needed”), and we learned a great deal about how other people’s responses to an individual’s behaviour could inadvertently increase or reduce the frequency of that behaviour.

Why is this important? Well, aside from the way pain behaviours develop from childhood (crying? Mama will cuddle you. Want something? Cry – and Mama will cuddle you), responses from a person’s partner will likely influence both verbal complaints and physical movements (pain behaviours) such as grimacing, bracing and guarding, and in surprising ways. In fact, in an electronic diary study where people with chronic low back pain and their partners (who had no pain) were asked to record responses five times a day for 14 days, researchers found that when a spouse observed their partner’s pain behaviour at one time, they’d be more likely to be critical or hostile towards that person at a later time. If the spouses believed that the person with pain was “trying to influence their feelings” at the first observation, their responses were more likely to be critical or hostile – and it was the attributions made by partners that mediated between pain behaviours and the subsequent criticism leveled at the person (Burns, Gerhart, Post, Smith, Porter, Buvanendran, et al., 2018).

The so what question is sure to come up for some people. Why do we care? It’s not like we can do anything about this, is it? Well… you know me – writing about this stuff isn’t just for fun! The first thing to know is that if something is influencing a person’s behaviour and especially their disability, rehabilitation professionals should be aware of it. Relationship “stuff” is part and parcel of rehabilitation because it’s part of the person’s context. Secondly, it’s not about judging whether this is good, bad or indifferent – it’s about recognising an influence on the person and considering how we might support that person to respond in a way that enhances their recovery. Finally, we need to recognise how behavioural expressions and responses to them influence us. An earlier study by the same researcher (Burns, Higdon, Mullen, Lansky and Wei, 1999) found that expressions of anger and depression by the person influenced the therapeutic alliance with the health professional and this was perceived both by the person and his or her therapist.

Should we, can we do anything to help?

First, to the “should.” Whether we like it or not, these influences are occurring – so they are having an effect anyway, and both on us and the person we’re working with. We are also constantly influencing our patients because we’re inherently social animals. It’s just that we’re probably oblivious to our influence, and consequently are likely to react rather than respond. While I don’t advocate clinicians who haven’t undertaken specific training in relationship work to begin “therapy”, there are some basic things we can and I think, should, do. We should because we’re already influencing anyway – so let’s do something helpful.

The second is, can we do anything to help? Well, yes – because as I’ve said above, we’re influencing anyway. Everything we say and do will likely influence the person we’re seeing and possibly their partner and family.

The first thing we can do is let the person we’re working with know that what they say and do influences the people around them. This might be a revelation to some! We can let them know that this communication is not deliberate, and neither is the interpretation by the partner. It’s part of being human and social.

The next thing we do is offer some information to the person and their partner. Preferably written or video – something that the person can share with their partner. This information should be about the nature of persistent pain (in particular), and that a person’s pain behaviour is unintentional. In other words, that what a person does is explicitly not intended to make the partner “feel bad for them” (ie garner sympathy – in fact, quite often it’s the opposite of what the person really wants!); that they’re not intentionally wanting to avoid doing something; and finally, that they’re not intending to “give in to the pain too easily”.

Another thing we can share with the person and their partner is that because pain is personal and internal, openly communicating about what’s going on is important. None of us are good at mind-reading! The responsibility for obtaining help has to be with the person living with pain, not the person who is observing. This might mean the person with pain needs to think about what they want their partner to do. Often it’s nothing – no fuss, no molly-coddling (been dying to use that word for a while!). But if the person does want something, it’s really good to be specific and clear: “I can’t lift this, can you give me a hand”. This doesn’t mean taking over, BTW!

Where possible, I think it would be great to ask partners and family to be involved in rehabilitation. I wonder at insurers who don’t allow partners or family/whanau to be involved in rehabilitation. I think it’s detrimental – because increasingly, we know that the social context of daily life is such an important influence on disability. Asking partners to be part of rehabilitation might be a bit easier under “lockdown” conditions in many countries at the moment, but even without these conditions, perhaps recording selected parts of sessions, even having a meeting (virtual or face-to-face) might allow partners to be part of their loved one’s rehabilitation journey.

Burns, J. W., Gerhart, J., Post, K. M., Smith, D. A., Porter, L. S., Buvanendran, A., . . . Keefe, F. J. (2018). Spouse Criticism/Hostility Toward Partners With Chronic Pain: The Role of Spouse Attributions for Patient Control Over Pain Behaviors. J Pain, 19(11), 1308-1317. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2018.05.007

Burns, J. W., Higdon, L. J., Mullen, J. T., Lansky, D., & Wei, J. M. (1999). Relationships among patient hostility, anger expression, depression, and the working alliance in a work hardening program. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 21(1), 77-82.

Radical? Radical!


Welcome to 2021! An interesting start to the year for my US friends, more of the same for my UK and European friends, and life in NZ and Australia goes on with an added dash of uncertainty because of the new! improved! more contagious Covid19!

I’ve had a few weeks away from my usual Monday morning writing routine, but I return to the blog today with a lovely book I’ve reviewed. There’s no secret about my personal preference for ACT both for living and flourishing in daily life, and for those of us living with persistent pain. Today’s book review is about Radical Relief: A guide to overcome chronic pain, written by Joe Tatta, physiotherapist. From the outset, I’ll acknowledge that I was sent a free promotional copy of this book – but I would have bought it anyway, I promise!

There are a few books I recommend for clinicians working with people living with pain. The first is a textbook called Pain: A textbook for health professionals which is one of the most accessible and clinically useful books for clinicians wanting to enhance their understanding beyond what they learned in undergrad training.

Another is an old CBT-based book written by Turk and Winter called The Pain Survival Guide which runs through the main conventional approaches to managing pain. It’s written for people with pain, and while there are certain parts I’m not certain are really well-supported by research, it offers the standard strategies that have been included in multi- and inter-professional pain management for years.

And now, Radical Relief arrives on the scene, and I think it will be another of those references I will use over and again. Radical Relief is written for people living with pain. It offers a “radical” way to returning to life, drawing on well-established, well-researched strategies for pain management from an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy perspective. For those who are not familiar with ACT, one of the major premises is that often our problem-solving mind gets in the way of us living a values-aligned life, particularly when we’re confronted with a situation or experience we can’t change.

Now I’m going to take a moment to comment on pain changing. Pain changes all the time. The intensity can go up and down. The quality might be intrusive – or fade into the background. It might be there all the time, or intermittently, or unexpectedly. There are so many factors that influence our experience of pain that it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find that most clinicians find that their patients experience at least some relief during or after treatment. And sometimes we clinicians like to take credit for that – and often we want to focus on getting a report from the patient that yes, pain has reduced. Sometimes we’ll almost do anything we can to find a way to “reduce the pain.” Part of the definition of pain (see here for the full definition and notes) includes the word “unpleasant” – “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage”, so I think it’s safe to assume most of us don’t want to experience pain. And yet we know that for many people, reducing pain intensity is not possible. That’s a fact that some clinicians don’t want to recognise. How we as clinicians handle our inability to alter pain intensity is a test of our willingness to read and acknowledge scientific literature.

OK, back to the book. ACT is based on the idea that underpinning successfully navigating life is a concept called psychological flexibility. This concept consists of six processes that appear to underpin how we can be psychologically flexible in the face of an unpredictable and challenging world. Joe Tatta, in this book, articulates these processes as they can be employed by people living with pain. How to be open, willing, aware and do what matters to you in the presence of pain, and all that this experience brings with it.

I won’t review how ACT might help – there’s plenty of information available on the web, including my blog, for those who aren’t familiar with it. I will, though, say that the way Joe writes is clear, succinct and empty of jargon. He writes as if he’s speaking directly to the reader. The sentences are short and full of questions to ask yourself. The chapters are also short and offer activities to try. Joe identifies that some of the activities might feel odd – they’re not “typical” of many self-help suggestions, because Joe invites readers to experiment, to try, to see what happens, to be open to what happens. This is refreshing!

Some features of this book that I particularly like are the room to write your own thoughts and responses down. The certificate at the end of the book is delightful. And the illustrations – gorgeous!

I think if I was a person who came across this book I’d be intrigued by it. I think I’d find it easy to read, and I’d be willing to try at least some of the ways Joe suggests. If I worked through this with a clinician, I think I’d find it even more useful. It’s not easy to step outside of yourself and recognise your mind’s sticky thoughts and attitudes. It’s hard to make changes on your own. So it’s not the way the book is written that means I’d suggest using it with the support of a coach or clinician, it’s simply the nature of motivation to change in the face of pain.

Now ACT has been found to be no more (and no less) effective than CBT (or indeed any other treatment approach we have: surgery, medications, exercise) for persistent pain. This doesn’t mean ACT “doesn’t work” – it just means that, like any of our approaches to persistent pain management, it’s not a case of one size fits all, or one therapy will be the magic bullet. I’ve advocated for a while that precisely because we have no over-arching “successful” treatment, this offers clinicians and people with pain an opportunity to find out the unique combination of strategies that are helpful for this person at this time and in this context. ACT, although it includes the term “acceptance” does not mean “resignation” – I prefer the term “willingness” to experience pain (rather than doing everything possible to suppress or avoid pain) in the pursuit of what matters. ACT’s functional contextualist philosophy means we need to ask “how well is this working?” about everything we do – because the ultimate measure of success is about whether the approach is helping us do what matters in a particular context. I think that’s pretty radical myself. And, like this book, while we won’t always have a “perfect” outcome, we can MOVE.

M= Make room for unpleasant sensations (and thoughts!)

O= Open up and observe non-judgementally

V= Values guide life, not pain

E= Engage in activities in line with your values

Thanks for the opportunity to review your book Joe, I appreciated it very much.

What to do about acute low back pain


I should add another line to that heading: in one easy step! And I’d be inundated with hits and if I could cash in on them I’d be rich! And wrong.

If there was a simple recipe for success, I’d expect that by now we’d have it. The very fact that SO MANY options for managing a bout of low back pain exist is a good reason for skepticism should you ever get tempted to take a headline like mine as a cause for celebration. However I do want to talk about acute low back pain because I think clinicians are often probably doing it wrong.

First of all, low back pain doesn’t include pain that also goes down the leg. Let’s get the definitions clear before we talk! In 2008 a Delphi study by Dione, Dunn, Croft, Nachemson, Buchbinder, Walker and colleagues (2008) developed two definitions: a minimal definition, and an optimal definition. These definitions were developed for epidemiological studies and the minimal definition is very simple – “In the past 4 weeks, have you had pain in your low back?” and “If yes, was this pain bad enough to limit your usual activities of change your daily routine for more than one day?”

from Dionne, Dunn, Croft, Nachemson, Buchbinder, Walker et al, (2008)

Now when it comes to defining a first bout of acute low back pain, Ardakani, Leboeuf-Yde & Walker (2019) raise some very interesting points: researchers investigating acute low back pain don’t clearly distinguish between the factors associated with the disease of low back pain (as they put it, the onset of the very first episode) from its recurring episodes – as they put it, “the continued manifestations of the “disease”.” In fact, in their systematic review for identifying risk factors from “triggers” (their term for subsequent episodes), they could find only one study dealing with the true incidence of first time low back pain – and this was low back pain caused by sports injury. All the remaining studies either explored new episodes, or recurring episodes. The major problem with these studies? They didn’t define how long a person should have had no low back pain at baseline. And given many of us develop back pain in adolescence (see Franz, Wedderkopp, Jespersen, Texen and Leboeuf-Yde, 2014, or Jones & MacFarlane, 2005) for example) it’s probable that studies investigating those over 18 years old will include a lot of people who have had that first bout already.

The trajectories for those of us who do develop low back pain are also reasonably murky because of the challenges around definitions, and there are several studies with slightly different results as you’d expect. Essentially, though, most researchers find that there are three or four patterns that emerge from longitudinal studies: lucky ones who have one bout and no or low levels of pain thereafter; those who have persisting mild pain, those who have fluctuating bouts over time, and those who develop persistent and severe pain. Chen and colleagues (2018) found that “lower social class”, higher pain intensity at the beginning, the person’s perceptions of more challenging consequences and longer pain duration, and greater “passive” behavioural coping were most significantly associated with the more severe trajectory over five years.

So, what does this mean for clinicians – and how well are we doing?

Acute low back pain can really frightening for people, especially if the pain is severe. As clinicians generally choose this work because we care about people, we get hooked into wanting to reduce pain and help. There’s nothing wrong about this – unless it means we also get hooked into trying to offer something we cannot. We’re inclined to believe that people seek help for their back pain because of the pain – but as Mannion, Wieser & Elfering (2013) found from a study of over 1,000 people with back pain at the time of the survey, 72% hadn’t sought care over the previous four weeks; 28% had sought care – and most from more than one provider. Women were more likely to seek care, those who had experienced more previous bouts, those who had trouble with activities of daily living and more trouble with work activities. While pain intensity did feature, it wasn’t as much of a predictor as many clinicians would expect. Indeed, an earlier meta-analysis by Ferreira and colleagues (2010) found that disability was a stronger predictor for seeking treatment than pain intensity.

So what do clinicians focus on? I suspect, though I aim to be proven incorrect, that almost every clinician will ask “what is your pain intensity on a scale from 0 – 10?” Frankly, this question is one that irritates me no end because how on earth do you rate pain? Seriously. Yes, there are a lot of clinicians who then ask about activities a person wants to be able to do (yay!) though when we look at the treatments offered, I wonder how many follow through with practical goal-setting for daily activities like getting shoes and socks on, carrying the groceries, sitting while driving the car or at work… And treatments? the arguments on social media between clinicians would be fun to watch if only they weren’t accompanied by such vehemence!

What I don’t see are conversations about how we help people recognise that they’re likely to follow one of those four trajectories, and what we do to help people self manage a life alongside low back pain.

I don’t see much attention paid to helping people sleep well.

Lots of conversations about pain neurobiology – in an attempt to use this explanation to bring someone on board to engage in treatments.

I don’t see a lot of discussion about how to ask about the person’s main concern – perhaps it’s nothing to do with pain, but more about “my niece is coming to visit and I’m not sure I can cope with entertaining her and managing my back pain”, or “we’re coming up to the busy time at work and I can’t not go in, but when I get home I’m trashed, how can I manage that?”, or “Monday’s are our busiest day, and I have to keep going because the team needs me, what do I do?”

I wonder whether clinicians could be persuaded to get out of the way and stop confusing people with recipes or algorithms or “special exercises” that “must be done this way” – I wonder if we could offer some very simple steps: specific answers to the person’s main concerns (best form of reassurance there is!); goal setting around the things the person needs and wants to do over the first six to eight weeks; sleep strategies including some mindfulness because that’s likely to help long-term; and lots of encouragement as the person returns to activity. Developing a relationship with the person doesn’t need lots of prescriptive steps or cookie cutter programmes, it does mean listening, showing trust in the person’s own capabilities, and willingness to let go of a few sticky thoughts we’ve acquired during our training. Maybe 2021 could be the year clinicians get back to basics and begin to support resilience in the people we see – firstly by showing them that we trust they have the capabilities.

Ardakani, E. M., Leboeuf-Yde, C., & Walker, B. F. (2019). Can We Trust the Literature on Risk Factors and Triggers for Low Back Pain? A Systematic Review of a Sample of Contemporary Literature. Pain Res Manag, 2019, 6959631. doi: 10.1155/2019/6959631

Dionne, C. E., Dunn, K. M., Croft, P. R., Nachemson, A. L., Buchbinder, R., Walker, B. F., . . . Von Korff, M. (2008). A consensus approach toward the standardization of back pain definitions for use in prevalence studies. Spine, 33(1), 95-103.

Franz, C., Wedderkopp, N., Jespersen, E., Rexen, C. T., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2014). Back pain in children surveyed with weekly text messages-a 2.5 year prospective school cohort study. Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, 22(1), 35.

Jones, G. T., & MacFarlane, G. J. (2005). Epidemiology of low back pain in children and adolescents. Archives of disease in childhood, 90(3), 312-316.

Mannion, A. F., Wieser, S., & Elfering, A. (2013). Association between beliefs and care-seeking behavior for low back pain. Spine, 38(12), 1016–1025

Bias: Is pain all the same?


The topic of how we define pain, and how humans respond to pain has come up for me as I mull over the IASP definition of pain. The current (new) definition is this:

An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.

Six key notes:

  • Pain is always a personal experience that is influenced to varying degrees by biological, psychological, and social factors.
  • Pain and nociception are different phenomena. Pain cannot be inferred solely from activity in sensory neurons.
  • Through their life experiences, individuals learn the concept of pain.
  • A person’s report of an experience as pain should be respected.
  • Although pain usually serves an adaptive role, it may have adverse effects on function and social and psychological well-being.
  • Verbal description is only one of several behaviors to express pain; inability to communicate does not negate the possibility that a human or a nonhuman animal experiences pain.

Now, for me the definition works fine – definitions describe and establish boundaries around what is being defined. Definitions don’t have to include all the uses of the term but instead just have to be distinct and clear, to “express the essential nature of something” as Merriam-Webster puts it.

Alongside this definition are notes about the function of pain – in other words, the notes (but not the definition) attempt to indicate why we experience pain. ‘An adaptive role‘ – in other words, pain serves a purpose in most cases and it may have adverse effects.

The question that leaps out to me now is what is the adaptive purpose of pain? This is the question that vexes many commentators who really don’t like the idea of what one author has called “maldynia“. Maldynia is thought to be “bad pain” that is severe, disabling and long-lived. I’m not fond of the word, but I do think there are pains that are not “adaptive” and these are amongst the ones that puzzle us the most in clinical practice. Things like phantom limb pain, nonspecific low back pain, complex regional pain syndrome and dear old fibromyalgia.

Back to the adaptive purpose of pain. Right now I have a cracked area on my heel. It’s quite a deep crack and it hurts every time I put my foot down. The way I’m using that information (the ‘ouch’) is to notice that yep, the crack is deep and there is tissue damage. And I am doing something about it by looking for urea-based cream and covering it while I work in the garden. I’ve (1) noticed tissue damage; (2) recognised that I need to do something about it; and (3) from experience, know that it will settle down and no longer be painful once the tissues have healed. I’ll also take care in the future to treat my heels so they remain soft as a baby’s bottom.

The metaphor of pain as an alert and action prompt serves quite well for me at the moment. And in most cases this is how we experience pain. Another example: I burned my thumb and finger on a soldering iron recently – you bet that hurt! I let go of the soldering iron PDQ, soaked my thumb and finger in cold water, then covered them until they had healed. The pain I experienced settled down after a day or so (unless I held a hot coffee cup!), and the new skin was a little tender for a couple of weeks. Again – pain served a purpose to alert me to stop doing dumb stuff, to protect the area, and to learn not to grab hold of the wrong end of the soldering iron! The metaphor of pain as an alert, call to action and learning experience again worked pretty well.

Now over the last few years I’ve had shoulder pain, imaging showed a bit of an enlarged bursa, a tiny fragment of calcification. This pain hasn’t settled down, even after I had cortisone injection AND did all the movement stuff including strength (yes – I did strength stuff!). Where oh where is the purpose or function of pain in this instance? Pain is not serving me well – I’ve been alerted, I’ve acted on that alert, nothing has changed and the metaphor breaks down.

But let’s take a look at the notes from IASP again – “Although pain usually serves an adaptive role” – usually. Usually. So there are times when pain does not serve an adaptive role. I think my shoulder pain, my groin pain, and my neck and back pain (yep, good old fibromyalgia) does not serve a function. I can’t think of any utility in having a grumpy body that really gripes about doing everyday movements like getting dressed, standing up from a chair, turning to look our the rear window of my car while I reverse down the driveway or aches in different parts of my body on different days then moves somewhere else at random.

A hidden assumption of the pain definition notes is that the “adaptive role” is reserved for those with a normally functioning nervous system, and where pain is associated with nociceptive activity, or inflammation. What if a nerve itself is damaged? What if the spinal cord is diseased or traumatised? What if there are changes to the way the nervous system processes information (we have that in every other sensory process, and in every other body system)? The experience of pain remains the same – still the same old aching, burning, gnawing, stinging sensations and the “ew”, “I don’t want this”, frustrating, totally unpleasant sensory and emotional experience as defined. The adaptive function, however? Not present.

The thing is, while I focus on persistent pain, most pain by far is not ongoing. I expect my heel crack to heal and the pain to go, and my now-slightly scarred finger and thumb are fine now.

Yes, the epidemiology of persistent pain shows that the prevalence of pain that goes on for more than three months is between 13–50% of adults in the UK. Of those who live with chronic pain, 10.4–14.3% were found to have moderate-to-severe disabling chronic pain (Fayaz, Croft, Langford, Donaldson & Jones, 2016). Similar findings for New Zealand – 16% of NZers live with pain lasting three months or more.

But given I think most of us will hurt ourselves at least once this year (especially with the lockdowns and stress of COVID19 and the economy and elections…), this means that more often than not, our experiences of pain are the acute kind. The ones that do alert us to notice what’s happening in our body, to take some kind of action, and to learn something useful from this experience.

So, while the metaphor of an alarm, alert, “danger signal” or “bear” or “beast” doesn’t hold up for all of our pain experiences, on the whole, it works. And the purpose of metaphor is “a way of conceiving of one thing in terms of another, and its primary function is understanding” (Lakoff and Johnson, 2003). Ultimately, we use metaphors like these to generate a sense of purpose for an experience that is commonplace, and the most common pain we have is a short-term, temporary one. Let’s not let my bias towards persistent pain lead me astray.

Fayaz A., Croft P., Langford R., Donaldson J., Jones G. Prevalence of chronic pain in the UK: a systematic review and meta-analysis of population studies. BMJ Open. 2016;6

Lakoff G, Johnson M. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003:36.

Merskey H., Bogduk N., editors. IASP task force on taxonomy, Part III: Pain Terms, A Current List with Definitions and Notes on Usage. IASP Press; Seattle, WA: 1994. pp. 209–214.

Why learning about pain can help – an old study worth revisiting


If you’ve read my blog over the years you’ll see that I love a bit of history. Learning from older studies, and older opinions, can help us position our current thoughts in a larger context. Older studies can also highlight concepts that haven’t grabbed the attention nearly as much as more recent studies but still have value.

Today’s post is about a studied published in 2004. It’s one I’ve often used to illustrate how influential our expectations or beliefs are when it comes to pain intensity and pain aversiveness/unpleasantness.

Take 31 healthy undergraduate students (50% were women in this case). Split them into two groups, and offer them a small incentive (a large bar of chocolate and a soft drink – OK I’m in!). Hold a set of objects to the back of their necks and ask them to rate the experience on a set of visual analogue scales ((1) very soft–very hard; (2) not prickling–very prickling; (3) not noticeable–very noticeable; (4) not painful–very painful; (5) not rough– very rough; (6) not damaging–very damaging; (7) not pleasant–very pleasant; (8) very cold–very hot; (9) very simple–very complex.). The objects were:

a feather, a small mirror, a rough brush, a paper handkerchief, a metal bar, a piece of hard plastic, a piece of sand paper, and a gel. The metal bar (aluminium, length 17.5 cm, diameter 3 cm) was cooled down to -25 degrees Celcius. This temperature was chosen because it’s not damaging when held briefly against the skin.

Each person was then individually exposed to the item, and asked to complete the ratings. The only difference between the groups was that participants were told just before the metal bar was applied, “this is very hot” or “this is very cold”.

The findings supported the hypothesis: when people thought the stimulus was hot they rated it as more painful AND more damaging than when they thought it was cold.

What do we make of this? The simple interpretation is that people interpret what happens to them in light of what they think is going on. That meaning influences the experience of pain. And that this interpretation occurs rapidly and without conscious awareness. The authors argued that attentional focus, anxiety and interpretation all influence the experience – however, in this instance, attention to the stimulus was greater in the case of the “cold” stimulus than the hot. Anxiety might influence attention to a stimulus, and “hot” might be more anxiety-provoking than “cold”, enhancing attentional awareness – or not. So the final consideration from this study is that if interpretation is essential in perceptual processing, tissue-damage related meaning might itself influence how pain is perceived.

The authors conclude by saying that their findings “support the hypothesis that higher order psychological processes influence the experience of pain” and go on to say they are “also of clinical importance, as they suggest that correction of dysfunctional interpretations of pain might help to reduce the burden the experience of pain poses on many people.”

Since this paper was published we have seen a proliferation of educational approaches to help people experiencing pain interpret this in a different way. I’m loathe to describe a person’s interpretation as “dysfunctional” because it is their experience – and at the same time I’m also aware that many unhelpful terms are used to describe what might be going on inside a person’s body. Some examples include “wear and tear” for osteoarthritis, “an unstable pelvis”, “your back has gone out”, “your spine is out of alignment” – the list goes on.

Here’s the thing: we can absolutely acknowledge a person’s distress at what they understand is going on, and what it feels like to them. We should, I think, always be compassionate and validate the distress we see in a person. That is real and their experience.

Here’s another thing: when the distress is based on inaccurate or unhelpful information, then I think it’s unethical to leave a person thinking this – even if we’ve offered validation and compassion. Would we leave a person to believe they had cancer when they didn’t? And yet some people would argue that to offer an alternative explanation somehow invalidates the person’s experience. We can both validate the distress a person is feeling AND offer a more workable or useful alternative.

At this point in my blog I want to be absolutely crystal clear – I do not know all the mechanisms involved in pain. Nobody does. And none of our explanations are terribly “True” with a capital T, because we actually don’t know. We do have some workable explanations to dispute or replace some unhelpful or unworkable explanations – eg that what we can see on imaging doesn’t equate with pain; that “issues in the tissues” are poorly correlated to pain; that “wear and tear” is often interpreted by people as “I’m wearing out” when it might be more useful to describe osteoarthritic changes as “age-related changes”. We definitely know that the brain is involved in our pain experience, and we know that various so-called psychological processes influence how much of a nociceptive stimulus is processed. What we don’t know is how – and that’s OK. To a great extent the “how is pain ‘produced'” question remains unanswered. But to leave people with an impression that “if I bend without using my core, I’ll do serious damage”, or “this could leave me in a wheelchair if I’m not very careful” in the name of validating a person’s experience is, I think, the very worst example of paternalism.

Do I espouse any particular way of helping someone make sense of their experience? Yes, glad you asked. My preference is to take the person through their own experiences, to help them “join the dots” of the various factors that might be influencing their pain. If, and when, it’s appropriate I might add in some things we know about pain such as increased anxiety likely increases pain and attention to pain – and this is why, in the middle of the night when there’s not much going on, and a person isn’t sleeping, they might notice their pain really going nuts. I accept that pain is present, and how or why isn’t nearly as important as exploring what this person notices about their own pain. And sometimes that might include some gate control theory, some neuromatrix, some descending inhibition information, and so on. In the service of my clinical reasoning about why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining this person’s predicament.

TL:DR – what a person thinks is going on has a powerful influence on both pain intensity and unpleasantness (oh and beliefs about harm). This matters because some explanations given to people (and some of the rubbish found on the internet) are not helpful at all.

Arntz, A., & Claassens, L. (2004). The meaning of pain influences its experienced intensity. Pain, 109(1-2), 20-25. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2003.12.030

Looking beyond the immediate


When I graduated as an occupational therapist, I was told that my profession was “problem-solving” and “motivation”. At the time (early 1980’s) Lela Llorens‘ problem solving process was the fundamental approach taught during our training. This approach is straightforward: identify the problem, identify solutions, select a solution, implement the solution, and review. I’m not sure if this approach is still taught but it’s stayed with me (and those memories of painstakingly completing the problem solving process documentation…).

There’s one small step that I think is either not fully articulated, or maybe gets lost in the iterative process of identifying solutions, implementing them and reviewing: and that’s the process of identifying contributors to the problem. Let me take you through a case study as an example.

Luke is in his mid-20’s with widespread pain. He’s off work, and his diagnosis is “fibromyalgia”. It started when he hurt his back working on cars (he’s a true petrol-head!) about a year ago, and now his pain dominates his life as he finds his pain has permeated his body. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, and thinks that his pain is because someone didn’t “fix” him when he first hurt his back.

The main thing he wants to be able to do is get back to driving and working on cars. It’s all he’s ever wanted to do, apart from play computer games, and he’s most happy at the moment when he’s watching motor racing on the net, preferably with a can of some high-sugar, high caffeine drink and a bit of weed. He otherwise doesn’t smoke tobacco, drinks on occasion, but he’s isolated and feels at a loose end.

The referral to an occupational therapist read “Luke wants to get back driving, will you assess, and provide appropriate intervention?” Implied, but not explicitly stated in the referral is that if Luke can return to driving, it will help him in his job search. Luke isn’t terribly interested in returning to work right now, because his focus is on what’s wrong with him and driving for fun.

The occupational therapist saw Luke, and assessed his ability to sit in the car, reverse the car, and drive over normal highway conditions. She thought he needed a seat insert so he was more ergonomically positioned, and she also thought that he could do with a better chair in the lounge because he usually sat slouched on the sofa playing his video games.

So she found him a suitable cushion and ergonomic backrest for his car, and he was also provided with chair raisers to lift his sofa up, and some cushions behind him so he was in a more upright position.

Luke was happy with the changes, though secretly a bit worried that his mates would think he was soft if he had a special seat cushion, and that old people used chair raisers, so he wasn’t at all keen on them in his lounge. But he took them anyway.

Job done.

Oh really? Yes, the occupational therapist addressed his seating and yes, he can now drive a bit more comfortably and even play his video games and watch TV, but did she really identify the problems?

You see, she identified the problem as “Luke can’t drive the car”, and she even dug a little deeper and identified that “Luke can’t drive the car or play his video games because he’s in pain.”

And that much is true – he was sore, told her he was sore, and pointed out that the position he used in the car and on the sofa was the same.

The problem is that – that wasn’t the problem.

There were a few more questions the therapist could have asked if her focus went beyond the immediate “problem” and she unpacked the next question which might have been “why is pain such a problem for Luke, and why is it getting in the way of Luke’s driving?” She might have added another question too – “why is Luke presenting in this way at this time, and what is maintaining his situation?”

Luke is a fictitious character, but “Luke’s” are everywhere. People who present with problems of occupational performance, but the problems contributing to those problems are the real issue. And yet, I’ve seen so many occupational therapy reports recommending “solutions” for similar problems that solve very little and probably compound the problem.

Where did our fictitious occupational therapist go wrong? Well, included in the problem solving process (and the variants developed since then) is a section called “assessment”. What exactly should be assessed in this part? Of course the assessment components will differ depending on the model of “what’s going on” held by the occupational therapist. When a simplistic biomechanical model of pain is being used, all the understanding of Luke’s values and beliefs, all the importance he places on being able to drive, the environment (his car seating, his sofa) – so much of what’s commonly included in an occupational therapy assessment might have very little to do with the problems Luke is having in daily occupation.

Leaping in to solve the problem of being able to drive focuses our minds on that as the key problem – but what if we looked at it as a symptom, or an expression of, other problems? This means, as occupational therapists, we might need to do a couple of things: firstly, we might need to assess more widely than “driving” or even “sitting” as the occupational performance problem. While referrers use this kind of approach to ask us to help, it doesn’t do much for our professional clinical reasoning. It tends to anchor us on “The Problem” as defined by someone else.

Even being person-centred, and asking Luke what he needs and wants to do may mislead us if we forget to look at the wider impact of pain on daily doing. If, as occupational therapists, we’re ignorant of the bigger picture of what’s going on when someone is disabled and distressed by their pain. If we forget that there are underlying processes we are well-equipped to deal with. If we forget the wider body of research into pain as an experience.

Perhaps occupational therapists could take some time to think about our contribution to the pain management team. I’ve been banging on about our knowledge translation skills, our awareness of context and how much daily life context differs from a gym or a clinic or an office. I’m not seeing that knowledge being demonstrated by occupational therapists in practice. What I’m seeing are stop-gap solutions that skim the surface of how pain impacts a person’s daily doing.

If occupational therapists recognised what our profession can offer a team, we might look at how someone like Luke could benefit from our in-depth assessment of what he thinks is going on, of how he communicates when he’s seeing other health professionals, of how he’s coping with his pain and how these strategies are taking him away from what matters in his life. We’d look at not just his occupational performance, but also those pain-specific factors well-established in research: his beliefs, his attitudes, his emotional responses, his social context, his habits and routines, his way of processing what he learns from others. We’d begin to look at him as a whole person. We might even look at how he’s integrating into his daily life all the things other clinicians in the team are offering.

Occupational therapy is a profession with so much to offer AND we need to develop our confidence and knowledge about what we do and about pain. We need to step outside of the narrow focus on “finding solutions and implementing them” and extend our assessments to identify the problems contributing to occupational performance difficulties.