Wishes for the New Year


One way of using a biopsychosocial framework in pain management – ii

Last week I discussed case formulation as one way of using a biopsychosocial framework in pain management, and I reviewed Benedetti’s description of the process of becoming aware that something’s wrong, seeking relief from that discomfort, then the “meet the therapist moment”, and finally the “receiving the therapy” steps along the way. Benedetti considers this within a neurobiological model (Benedetti, 2013), while Engel (1977) used general systems theory to frame his critique of the original biomedical model.

This week I want to look at a behavioural model. I do this partly because I think it’s been a long time since this model was brought into our discussions about pain and pain behaviour, and I do it because I think we can understand a great deal about why different people respond differently to their pain when we look at behaviour alone – before we even begin to look at beliefs or attitudes about pain.

Let’s do a little revision (Psych 101). In a behavioural model, we’re looking at two main forms of conditioning: Pavlovian or classical conditioning, and operant or instrumental conditioning. In the case of pain, we also need to revisit the distinction made between the experience (pain), and our behavioural response to that experience (pain behaviours). Pain behaviours are typically filtered or influenced by what we think is going on (judgements about the meaning of pain – eg super-scary crumbling back, or I just did too much gardening), what we’ve learned to do, and the context in which we’re experiencing pain. That context can be current (eg I’m in Church and it’s very quiet so I’d better not swear as I hit my toe against the pew!), or past (eg last time I kicked my toe against the pew and swore, everyone looked at me – how embarrassing!), or even future (eg if I swear when I kick my toe against the pew, I’ll never be able to show my face here again!). It’s the learned part I want to discuss today.

Pain behaviours range from reflex withdrawal responses (lifting the foot up while straightening the other leg to support me when I stand on a tack), to quite complex behaviours we’ve learned are relevant in our environment (filling out a claim form for compensation and treatment).

We probably developed pain behaviours as part of our evolutionary development: the reflex withdrawal behaviours don’t require conscious thought, so they begin in infancy (actually, before), and rely on spinal mechanisms (eg Rohrbach, Zeiter, Andersen, Wieling & Spadavecchia, 2014), with various parts of the brain becoming involved as part of strategies to avoid threat (see Damasio and Damasio (2016) for some insights into evolutionary aspects of withdrawal reflex). But because we have a developed cortex, we’ve learned ways of suppressing our responses, depending on social context – and on responses from others around us.

Reflexive responses are those associated with classical conditioning – and lead us to learn relationships between previously non-threatening stimuli and both withdrawal responses and the physiological arousal that goes with them. For example, if I bend over to make the bed and OUCH! my back suddenly gets really sore. I straighten up very carefully – and I’ve learned something: next time I bend over to make the bed, I’ll be remembering and preparing for that OUCH! to happen once again. The bed and bending forward movement become associated, in my mind, with that OUCH! Of course, for most of us, once we make the bed a few more times (make that many times), we’ll learn that OUCH! doesn’t inevitably follow the bend, so we gain confidence to repeat that movement without preparing for the OUCH! Now what do you think might happen if I never had an opportunity to make the bed again? Say, if I have a really protective person in my life who stopped me every time I go to do it – will that association I have in my mind persist, or will it reduce? This is, in essence, what is thought to happen when someone develops so-called “fear avoidance”. Note: the experience of pain does not have to re-occur for me to avoid bending and begin to rev my nervous system up. What needs to happen is for the first instance to be pretty strong, and for me to not test my belief again. It’s the behaviour that persists (avoidance) because by avoiding something I believe will be OUCH! I avoid experiencing OUCH! And by avoiding that experience, I never test whether OUCH! happens every time, or just that once.

Let’s look at the other really powerful learning mechanism: operant conditioning. In this situation, the likelihood of me repeating my behaviour is increased or reduced, depending on responses in the environment. So, let’s take my bending forward and experiencing OUCH! If my partner (bless him) then decided to fuss over me, make me a cup of tea and tell me not to worry about making the bed ever again – AND if I liked that idea – my response is likely to be to avoid making the bed. I might even go as far as wincing a bit when walking, so he makes me another cup of tea and fusses over me. I might talk about my back pain because he’s so concerned about me (or I really want him to be concerned about me) and if he carries on fussing, I’m likely to carry on with these behaviours. Now picture that in a two-year-old kid – every time the kid trips and cries, some concerned parent comes picks him up, something the kid likes, it’s probable that kid will learn that this is normal, and something to do when he hurts. For more on learning theory, Johan Vlaeyen summarises the state of play in a review paper from 2015 (Vlaeyen, 2015).

We’re smart, us humans. We learn to predict and remember patterns even from imprecise data – it doesn’t take much for us to put two and two together, particularly when it’s something relevant to surviving! Whenever I’m listening to someone telling me their story about why they’re presenting in this way at this time, and what is maintaining their situation, I keep thinking about the various learning mechanisms involved. Social context and the people around us and how they respond to us exert a powerful force on what we do – and many times we’re not even aware of why we do what we do.  Knowing this stuff means that when I’m listening to someone’s story I try very hard to factor in those things that may have influenced what the person does, rather than just thinking the person is aware of doing all they are doing.


Benedetti, F. (2013). Placebo and the new physiology of the doctor-patient relationship. Physiological Reviews, 93(3), 1207-1246. doi:10.1152/physrev.00043.2012

Damasio, A., & Damasio, H. (2016). Pain and other feelings in humans and animals. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, 1(3), 33.

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

Rohrbach, H., Zeiter, S., Andersen, O. K., Wieling, R., & Spadavecchia, C. (2014). Quantitative assessment of the nociceptive withdrawal reflex in healthy, non-medicated experimental sheep. Physiology & behavior, 129, 181-185.
Vlaeyen, J. W. (2015). Learning to predict and control harmful events: Chronic pain and conditioning. Pain, 156, S86-S93.

One way of using a biopsychosocial framework in pain management – i

While a biopsychosocial ‘model’ (or sociopsychobiological framework) has been widely adopted when attempting to understand pain, many critics argue that it just doesn’t give clinicians a clear way to integrate or prioritise clinical information and generate treatments. The ‘model’ itself has been challenged from many angles – it’s too complex, too simplistic, relies on Bertalanffy’s “general systems theory” which has itself been challenged, it’s too “fuzzy”, and of course there are many who think that psychological and sociocultural aspects of human experience are epiphenomena while will ultimately be boiled down to cellular or biological processes. Nevertheless, this framework also has considerable appeal, is widely adopted and I think can provide us with some useful heuristics for thinking about how and why a person presents in the way they do at the time they do – and helps us consider what can be done to reduce distress and disability.

Disclaimer: I work with the “fuzzy” sociopsychological aspects of pain management, and leave a great deal of the biological to those who focus on that – and believe me, the biological is usually done and done to the nth degree in most cases of persistent pain. I rarely see someone who hasn’t had their scans, Xrays, physical examinations, bloods, urine, nerve conduction, surgery, exercise or whatever looked at – but plenty of people who have never once been asked what they think is going on and what their main concern is. Oh and not had their sleep, mood, alcohol and other substance use, daily routines, relationships, work situation, community and spiritual aspects of life ever discussed. So, despite the constant banging on about “don’t forget the bio” – I really do not think this is a thing.

Where do we start with this approach?

The first place I start with my discussions is to ask “Tell me about your problems with pain.” What I’m focusing on in this discussion is when did the person first recognise that there was “something wrong” – and then what did they do about it.

Fabricio Benedetti talks about the neurobiological processes involved in a person detecting that he or she is “unwell”. He writes: “Physiology and neuroscience have a lot to say about feeling sick, for it involves sensory systems that convey different pieces of information related to peripheral organs and apparatuses, as well as brain regions that lead to conscious awareness.” (Benedetti, 2013). To me, this involves biological, psychological and social factors for when does a person recognise that “conscious awareness” means something? Benedetti goes on to say “The second step is what makes a patient “seek relief,” a kind of motivated behavior that is aimed at suppressing discomfort. This behavioral repertoire is not different from that aimed at suppressing hunger or thirst, and the brain reward mechanisms are crucial in this regard” (Benedetti, 2013). Judgements about what internal experiences mean may begin with a reflex response (automatic and based on evolutionary demands to keep safe) but what we DO about those experiences depends a great deal on what we learn from others. The people we most draw from are those around us – mother, father, siblings, people in our immediate family and extended family. And over time, the social nature of humans means we also consider the community in which we live – and wider with social media! Judgements, or appraisals (thoughts and beliefs about the meaning of these internal experiences) are, ‘fraid to say, psychological in nature. While the influences on thoughts and beliefs are – you guessed it – social.

So, how can a clinician use this information? Where’s the research? Come on – science it up woman!!

If it’s not enough to know that there are neurobiological factors underpinning our internal experience, and motivated behaviour is tied up with reward systems, then what else can we use to understand the processes of feeling ill and seeking treatment? To me, the natural first step is to look at learning mechanisms. Yep, very basic Psych 101 classical and operant conditioning mechanisms. Add in a dash of social learning theory (how we learn from watching and talking with others) and we have some rather useful experimentally-validated hypotheses to work with.

What do I mean by this?

Well, at least part of clinical reasoning is a process of recognising potential explanations for the phenomena we see. My take on clinical reasoning is that we can use case formulation to help generate a series of hypotheses to explain why a person is coming to see us in this way at this time – and what might be maintaining their current situation. In case formulation we can use “abductive reasoning” (recognising a potential “rule” or class of behaviour from a specific observation – eg we can postulate that a person’s sleep disturbance might be due to low mood, sleep apnoea, habit, operant conditioning, or a new baby, and we’ll probably collect some more information to test each of these possible explanations before deciding on the most probable reason). If we know a whole bunch of research around what humans do when they’re feeling sore and vulnerable, we are able to come up with a bunch of possible reasons for someone noticing they feel unwell, judging it in a certain way, and then deciding to do something about it.

For example, we know from research studies that people who have had adverse experiences in early childhood have a greater risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain (eg Afari, Ahumada, Wright, Lostoufi, Golnari, Reis & Cuneo, 2014; Jones, Power & Macfarlane, 2009). We also know that those people may develop weaker attachments to others and so feel vulnerable in relationships where high levels of trust are needed – also linked to the presence of persistent pain – and adversely affecting outcomes from multidisciplinary pain management programmes (Anno, Shibata, Ninomiya, Iwaki, Kawata, Sawamoto et al., 2015; Kowal, McWilliams, Peloquin, Wilson, Henderson & Fergusson, 2015).

These factors might mean that when we ask someone about their theory for why they have persistent pain, or what they think is going on, we might keep an ear open to listen for threats to relationships around the time of the onset of the problem dealing with pain (especially if the pain has been present for a while but the person hasn’t been looking for treatment until just now). We might also be thinking hard about the neurobiological effects of relationship breakups and how this might impinge on either coping (eg accessing strategies to manage effectively during painful experiences) or on stress responses (eg heightened vigilance to threat).

Two things: (1) This doesn’t mean persistent pain is “psychological” – it’s not, but these experiences might set the scene for neurobiological changes, both in “set-point” for threat and in resilience for dealing with threat. (2) This also doesn’t mean that we need to deal with the response to relationship stress ourselves – it might mean we listen respectfully, and bear this vulnerability in mind during our interactions, being careful not to threaten trust, and work hard to retain a sense of warmth/empathy as well as competence for this person.

Next time: More on learning theory and how these might influence the way we look at why someone seeks treatment with us, and why at this time, and what may be maintaining the behaviours we see.


Afari N, Ahumada SM, Wright LJ, Mostoufi S, Golnari G, Reis V, Cuneo JG., (2014). Psychological trauma and functional somatic syndromes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychosomatic Medicine, 76, 2-11.

Anno, K., Shibata, M., Ninomiya, T., Iwaki, R., Kawata, H., Sawamoto, R., . . . Hosoi, M. (2015). Paternal and maternal bonding styles in childhood are associated with the prevalence of chronic pain in a general adult population: The hisayama study. BMC Psychiatry, 15(1), 181. doi:10.1186/s12888-015-0574-y

Benedetti, F. (2013). Placebo and the new physiology of the doctor-patient relationship. Physiological Reviews, 93(3), 1207-1246. doi:10.1152/physrev.00043.2012

Jones GT, Power C, Macfarlane GJ, (2009). Adverse events in childhood and chronic widespread pain in adult life: Results from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study. Pain 143:92-96.

Kowal, J., McWilliams, L. A., Péloquin, K., Wilson, K. G., Henderson, P. R., & Fergusson, D. A. (2015). Attachment insecurity predicts responses to an interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38(3), 518-526. doi:10.1007/s10865-015-9623-8

What should healthcare professionals learn?

I was lucky enough to spend two days attending the Placebo Symposium in Sydney in November this year – what an experience! A lineup of the cream of researchers exploring placebo and contextual responses (meaning responses) – all were excellent speakers and the focus was on both research and what this means to clinicians. If you’re keen to watch all you can for free over the next two weeks – click here: www.placebo.armchairmedical.tv.

At the end of the symposium, the speakers were asked a question by artist Eugenie Lee what subjects they would want taught if they had all the facilities and students with top class skills attending. This is what they said (it’s the Lennox Thompson translation, any mis-translations are entirely my responsibility):

  • Inform students about the contextual effects of every single clinical encounter and treatment
  • Help them focus on supporting patients to develop helpful expectations about treatments
  • Read Stanislovski (A good doctor [healthcare professional] is about being a good actor)
  • Always remember: we’re treating people not tissues
  • Use words wisely (they can heal – and harm)
  • Listen to your patients (and show them you’re listening)
  • Interprofessionalism is a thing
  • Talk with your patients not at them
  • Train together with your allied health colleagues
  • Ignore “placebo” or contextual effects at your peril
  • “Placebo” will eventually die – but the effect of context lives on in every treatment
  • Communication skills training needs more than a taste – to learn these skills takes time and intensity
  • Emphasise not just empathy – but also competence – these two factors contribute enormously to the “meet the therapist moment” (generating a sense of trustworthiness)
  • Introduce neurobiology from the beginning of the course
  • Learn [much much much more] about pain throughout the programme – not just the neurobiological systems but the psychological and social
  • Develop greater understanding of research methodologies for studying treatments and their effects

What were my take-away points from this whole conference?

As a longtime convert to Dan Moerman’s re-labeling to meaning response of what we often call “placebo effect”, the key points I took away were these (and you’ll see them pop up again and again in my blogs I’m sure):

  • Every healthcare encounter involves four things: a person seeking help, a person hoping to deliver help, a treatment ritual, and a social context. These can’t be divided if we hope to understand the outcome of treatment.
    • We need to understand the person seeking help – how they identify their illness, how they frame recovery, what their main concern is, and the context in which they are experiencing their illness.
    • We need to understand the person hoping to deliver help – how they view their contribution, how they view the person seeking help, the way they frame their treatment, the context in which they’re given the authority to help, and how they frame recovery.
    • We need to explore the treatment ritual – from the packaging, the meaning (to both parties) of the artifacts, the procedures, the words and actions – all of these have meaning, as marketing companies undoubtedly know (and exploit).
    • We need to examine the social context – the communities in which we live, the way illness and wellbeing are defined, the way healing is understood, how treatments are recognised, the impact of language and interpretation of that language and the way language evolves over time, how communities view treatment seekers and treatment givers, historical understanding and how this influences who, what, why and how therapeutic interactions are enacted.
  • The psychological is underpinned [as much as we can detect for now] by neurobiology, at one level of analysis. Neurobiological processes are incredibly complex and we don’t understand them very well. As we do, many of the influences decried as “woolly” or “fluffy” by some of my colleagues are, I think, going to be uncovered and found to be extraordinarily complex interactions between neurobiological systems. And yes, they will be complex – beyond most mortal’s understanding. This doesn’t mean they’re woo, or that they can be disregarded.
  • A other levels of analysis, sociopsychological processes are incredibly important contributors to the way treatments are sought – and treatments have effects. This means we’re unlikely to understand them in any simplistic sense. So to deride these processes as irrelevant or “unscientific” simply because they don’t fit in with an existing model of cause and effect (particularly if they don’t fit with a simple 1+2+3=6 model) probably means there’s a lot of learning needed. Simply because an empirical basic science or RCT doesn’t show “what’s going on” does not mean the concept under study is “not science” – it just means a scientific methodology that accommodates these complexities is needed. Not everything can be reduced to an experimental design – qualitative research is valid for some very important questions.
  • Communication – what and how we express meaning to another, and how this is interpreted and responded to by that other – occurs everywhere and all the time. Whether we attend to it or not. Meaning-making is something humans just do. So maybe as health professionals we should invest rather more than we do in training ourselves to be skilled at communicating. This means recording our interactions, reviewing them, getting to know the effect of what we communicate and training ourselves to be just as careful with our communication as we are with prescribing anything else. Because it could be that our communication is the most potent ingredient in our treatment.

“A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something.” —Wilson Mizner

Minding your body: Interoceptive awareness, mindfulness and living well

We all grow up with a pretty good idea of what our body feels like; what normal is. It’s one of the first “tasks” of infancy, it seems, to work out what is me and what is not. When people experience a disturbance to the way their body moves or feels, it can take some time to get used to that new way of being. In pregnancy, where the body takes on a different shape and dimension, it’s not uncommon to bump into things because the new shape hasn’t yet sunk in!

This awareness of “what my body feels like” is called interoceptive awareness (IA), and I was intrigued to read this paper by Hanley, Mehling and Garland (2017) in which IA is examined in relation to dispositional mindfulness (DM). DM is thought to be the innate tendency to notice without judging or automatically reacting to what is going on. IA may be extremely sensitive in some people – for example, people with health anxiety might notice their sweaty palms and heart palpitations and then worry that they’re about to have a heart attack, or the same symptoms in someone with social anxiety might be experienced as indications to LEAVE RIGHT NOW because EVERYONE is looking at ME.

I’m not sure of research into IA in people with persistent pain, although I am positive it’s something that has been studied (see Mehling, Daubenmier, Price, Acree, Bartmess & Stewart, 2013). As a result, in my conclusions I’m going to draw from my experience working with those living with persistent pain, and extrapolate wildly!

This study aimed to establish the relationship between various items on two questionnaires used to measure IA and DM: the MAIA (Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness), and the FFMQ (Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire). The paper itself discusses the first measure as empirically derived and confirmed by focus groups, and having associations with less trait anxiety, emotional susceptibility and depression – in other words, high scores on this measure (awareness of body sensations and judging those sensations) are associated with important factors influencing our wellbeing. The second measure is described as “one of the most commonly used self-report measures of DM”. It consists of five scales thought to measure important aspects of mindfulness (observing, not reacting and acting with awareness).

Along with these two measures, the authors examined wellbeing, which essentially was defined as a tendency to accept oneself, have a purpose, manage the environment, develop good relationships, continue to grow as a person and be independent and autonomous. We could probably argue about these dimensions in view of what may be a cultural component (autonomy may not be highly favoured in some communities).

Recruitment was via mTurk, Amazon’s crowdsourcing website. As a result participants possibly don’t represent the kinds of people I would see in clinical practice. And half of the 478 participants were excluded because people didn’t complete all the questionnaires. I could quibble about this sample, so bear that in mind when you consider the results.


Turning to the results, the first finding was a good correlation between all three questionnaires, with the FFMQ more strongly correlated with psychological wellbeing than the MAIA. But these researchers wanted more! So they carried out canonical correlation analysis, which is used to correlate the latent variables present in measurement instruments. It’s complicated, but what it can tell us is how underlying aspects of two unrelated measures might fit together. In this instance, the researchers found that two of the FFMQ (non-reacting and observing) were related to six of the eight MAIA factors (attention regulation, self-regulation, trusting, emotional awareness, body listening and noticing). They also found that FFMQ ‘non-judging’ and ‘acting with awareness’ were associated with MAIA ‘not worrying’ subscale.

What does this tell us? Well, to me it’s about grouping somewhat-related items together from two instruments to work out their contribution to something else. The authors thought so too, and therefore completed a further analysis (told you it was complicated!), to look at a two-step hierarchical multiple regression where the two sets of scales were entered into equations to see how much each contributed to the psychological wellbeing score. Whew!

What they found was interesting, and why I’m fascinated by this study despite its shortcomings.

What can we do with this info?

Being mindfully observant and non-reactive seems to be associated with a person’s ability to notice and control attention to what’s going on in the body. Makes sense to me – knowing what goes on in your body but being able to flexibly decide how much to be bothered about, and what you’re going to do about those sensations will make a difference to how well you can cope with things like fatigue, hunger, the need to change body position or to sustain a position when you’re focusing on something else – like hunting!

Apparently, being able to attend to body sensations is also part of regulating your emotional state, and if you can do this, you’ll generally experience your body as a safe and “trustworthy” place. And if you can do this when your body doesn’t feel so good yet still remain calm and accepting, this is a good thing. In the final analysis, these authors called the first cluster of statements “Regulatory awareness” – being aware of your body and regulating how you respond to it. The second cluster related more with non-judging and acting with awareness, so the authors called this “Acceptance in action”.

For people living with persistent pain, where the body often does not feel trustworthy and there’s an increased need to “ignore” or “let go” or “not judge” painful areas, it seems that one of the most important skills to learn is how to self regulate responses to IA. To take the time to notice all the body (not ignore the sore bits, nor obsess about the sore bits). This doesn’t come easily because I think for most of us, we’ve learned we need to notice pain – after all, ordinarily it’s helpful! The second part is to accept in action – in other words discriminating between unpleasant body sensations are should be worried about, and those not needing our attention is an adaptive skill. Perhaps mindfulness gives us better capabilities to discriminate between what needs to be taken into account, and what does not.

Interestingly, the least strongly associated response items were related to using words to describe what goes on in the body. For me this suggests experiential practices might be more useful to help people develop these two skills than simply talking about it. And suggests that maybe we could use meditative movement practices as a good way to develop these skills.

R.A. Baer, G.T. Smith, J. Hopkins, J. Krietemeyer, L. Toney, (2006) Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness, Assessment 13 27–45.

Hanley, A. W., Mehling, W. E., & Garland, E. L. (2017). Holding the body in mind: Interoceptive awareness, dispositional mindfulness and psychological well-being. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 99, 13-20. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2017.05.014

W.E. Mehling, J. Daubenmier, C.J. Price, M. Acree, E. Bartmess, A.L. Stewart, (2013). Self-reported interoceptive awareness in primary care patients with past or current low back pain, Journal of Pain Research. 6

W.E. Mehling, C. Price, J.J. Daubenmier, M. Acree, E. Bartmess, A. Stewart, (2012) The multidimensional assessment of interoceptive awareness (MAIA), PLoS One 7  e48230.

Manage pain – or aim to cure? Why I’m committed to pain management

Prominent researchers, clinicians and commentators seem to suggest that aiming to help people live with their pain is aiming too low. That pain cure or at least reduction is The Thing To Do. It’s certainly got a bit of a ring to it – “I can help get rid of your pain” has a sex appeal that “I can help you live with your pain” doesn’t have. And I can recognise the appeal. Persistent pain can be a scourge for those who live with it; it can eat away at every part of life. Imagine waking up one day to find NO PAIN! Excited much?

So why do I keep hammering on about this not very glamorous, certainly very challenging and at times unrewarding area of practice?

Here’s the thing. Persistent pain is extremely common. Not only is low back pain responsible for the most years lived with disability globally (Hoy, Bain, Williams, March, Brooks, Blyth, Woolf, Vos & Buchbinder, 2012), painful disorders like osteoarthritis increase with an aging population, and post-surgical pain is a problem for ~ 12% of people undergoing hip replacement, between 20 – 50% women undergoing mastectomy, and we all recognise the pain after limb amputation (between 50 – 80%) (Reddi & Curran, 2014). In New Zealand one person in five experiences persistent pain that goes beyond three months…

And our treatments, whether they be pharmaceuticals, procedures, surgeries or even groovy new things like mirror therapy or graded motor imagery don’t guarantee complete pain relief for 100% of patients. In fact, each new wave of therapy provides some pain relief for some people some of the time. And we shouldn’t be completely surprised about this because our nociceptive system is extraordinarily complex – and needs to be active because without pain we’re not likely to live long…or prosper. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that our nociceptive system with associated thoughts, emotions and behavioural responses has built-in redundancy simply because it’s there to protect us against potential harm. And every body system has at least one disorder/disease/dysfunction, so why would we think our “pain” system is immune?

So why do I spend time learning about management when I could be focused on reducing pain?

Well one reason is my clinical orientation. I’m an occupational therapist at heart (true, warped by contact with psychologists and physiotherapists), but essentially I’m about helping people do the things they need and want to do in daily life. My tools of trade are first of all focused on helping people work out the occupations (activities) that make them feel like themselves and then helping them do those things – and secondarily, and as a result of this focus, on helping people deal with their pain experience. Sometimes the latter involves helping people develop awareness of exactly how much or how little of their body and life is taken up with pain, helping them develop “wiggle room” so they can feel they have a little more space to be who they are, helping them find new ways to do those occupations that make them feel like themselves so the pain doesn’t take up quite so much room in their sense of self. Sometimes I do focus on obvious ways that people respond to their experience that may actually be making that experience much more unpleasant than it needs to be.

Another reason for me is that with a primary focus on pain reduction, we can forget the reason people want pain reduced – which is to go on and live life. And when we’re unsuccessful at reducing pain – where do those people go for help? What does it feel like to seem to “fail” a treatment again? and again? Who helps those people have good quality of life when they feel demoralised, the treatment options are exhausted and the clinicians who so desperately want to help them have no more ideas?

And as I mentioned above – there are no absolute cures for most forms of persistent pain. Nothing in my reading of the research around the world suggests that researchers have hit upon a jackpot and found a way to eliminate persistent pain 100%. What that means is there are likely to be people who will never experience complete relief from their pain. And others for whom the treatment is unavailable because of cost, side effects, intrusion on life, or because the treatment violates their values.

And because there are people who need to live with persistent pain until we have a “universal cure”, researchers and clinicians still need to refine and innovate the pain management strategies that will need to be used.

I’m not the person to make the decision about whether pain reduction or pain management is the best option. That’s not my job as a clinician or a researcher – I’m there to help people weigh up the costs and the benefits of treatments, and examine how best we can help those who can’t get rid of their pain. The thing is: if clinicians don’t know that there are viable ways of living well with pain (or they reject these as inferior or second class in comparison with pain reduction or elimination) how will they support their patients to make their own decisions? Or will they neglect to offer the approaches they don’t know about? And what kind of a choice is that?




Hoy, D., C. Bain, G. Williams, L. March, P. Brooks, F. Blyth, A. Woolf, T. Vos and R. Buchbinder (2012). A systematic review of the global prevalence of low back pain. Arthritis & Rheumatology 64(6): 2028-2037.

Reddi, D., & Curran, N. (2014). Chronic pain after surgery: pathophysiology, risk factors and prevention. Postgraduate medical journal, 90(1062), 222-227.

What’s the biggest barrier to learning more?

Reading and engaging with clinicians online and face-to-face, it’s clear to me that effectively integrating psychosocial factors into daily clinical reasoning, especially amongst physical or manual therapists, is a real challenge. There’s enough research around showing how poorly these factors are identified and then factored in to change what we do and how we do it for me to be convinced of this. What intrigues me, though, is why – given psychosocial risk factors have, in NZ, been around since 1997 – it’s still a problem.

It’s not ignorance. It’s not holding an alternative viewpoint. It’s not just that clinical reasoning models don’t seem to integrate these factors, or that our original training kinda partitioned the various “bits” of being human off – I think that it’s probably that we think we’re already doing well enough.

Image result for dunning kruger effect

This effect has a name – Dunning-Kruger effect. Now, don’t be put off by this term, because I know in some social media circles it’s used to bash people who are  maybe naive, or haven’t realised their lack of knowledge, and it can feel really awful to be told “well actually you’re ignorant”, or “you’re inflating your skill level”.  The thing is, it’s a common experience – we all probably think we’re great car drivers – but in reality we’re all pretty average.

The same thing occurs when we consider our ability to be:

  • empathetic
  • responsive
  • good listeners
  • client-centred
  • collaborative

Another important effect found in clinicians is that we believe our experience as clinicians means we’re better at aspects of clinical care, and especially at clinical reasoning. Over time we get better at recognising patterns – but this can actually be a problem for us. Humans are excellent at detecting patterns but as a result we can jump to conclusions, have trouble stopping ourselves from fixating on the first conclusion we draw, begin looking for things to confirm our hunch, overlook things that don’t fit with the pattern we’ve identified, and basically we begin to use stereotypes rather than really looking at the unique person sitting in front of us (see Croskerry, Singhal & Mamede, 2013a, b).

The effect of these biases, and especially our bias towards thinking we do better than we actually do (especially regarding communication skills and psychosocial factors) means we’re often completely unaware of HOW we communicate, and HOW poorly we pick up on psychosocial factors.

So often I’ve heard people say “Oh I use intuition, I just pick up on these psychosocial issues” – but the problem is that (a) we’re likely to over-estimate how well we pick up on them and (b) our intuition is poor. The risk for our patients is that we don’t identify something important, or alternatively, that we label something as a psychosocial risk factor when it’s actually irrelevant to this person’s problem.

Clinical reasoning is difficult. While recognising patterns becomes easier over time because we have a far broader range of patterns we’ve seen before, at the same time

  • research is expanding all the time (we can be out of date)
  • we can get stuck prematurely identifying something that isn’t relevant
  • we get hooked in on things we’ve just read about, things that happen rarely, things that remind us of something or someone else

Hypothetico-deductive reasoning is an alternative approach to clinical reasoning. It’s an approach that suggests we hold some ideas about what’s going on in our mind while collecting more information to test whether this is the case. The problem here is that we look for information to confirm what we think is happening – rather than looking for something to disconfirm, or test, the hypothesis we hold. So, for example, we might observe someone’s pain behaviour and think to ourselves “oh that person is doing that movement because of a ‘dysfunctional movement pattern’. We can assume that the reason for this movement pattern is because of underlying dysfunction of some sort – but we fail to test that assumption out to see whether it might in fact be a movement pattern developed because someone told the person “this is the way you should move”, or the person is moving that way because of their beliefs about what might happen if they move differently.

The problem with intuition and these other cognitive biases is that they simplify our clinical reasoning, and they reduce effort, so they’re easy traps to fall into. What seems to help is slowing down. Deliberately putting a delay in between collecting information and making a decision. Holding off before deciding what to do. Concurrently, we probably need to rely less on finding “confirming” information – and FAR more on collecting information across a range of domains, some of which we may not think are relevant.

That’s the tough bit. What we think is relevant helps us narrow down our thinking – great for reducing the amount of information we need to collect, but not so great for testing whether we’ve arrived at a reasonable conclusion. My suggested alternative is to systematically collect information across all the relevant domains of knowledge (based on what’s been found in our research), wait a bit and let it settle – then and only then begin to put those bits and pieces together.

Why doesn’t it happen? Well, we over-estimate how well we do this assessment process. We do jump to conclusions and sometimes we’re right – but we wouldn’t know whether we were right or not because we don’t check out alternative explanations. We’re pushed by expectations from funders – and our clients – to “set goals” or “do something” at the very first assessment. We feel guilty if we don’t give our clients something to take away after our initial assessment. We want to look effective and efficient.

Great quote?

For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, elegant, and wrong. H.L. Mencken.

If you’d like to question your own practice, try this: Record your session – and transcribe that recording. Notice every time you jump in to give advice before you’ve really heard your client. Notice how quickly you form an impression. Examine how often you look for disconfirmation rather than confirmation. See how often you ask about, and explore, those psychosocial factors. It’s tough to do – and sobering – but oh how much you’ll learn.

Croskerry, P., Singhal, G., & Mamede, S. (2013). Cognitive debiasing 1: origins of bias and theory of debiasing. BMJ Quality & Safety, 22(Suppl 2), ii58-ii64. doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2012-001712

Croskerry, P., Singhal, G., & Mamede, S. (2013). Cognitive debiasing 2: impediments to and strategies for change. BMJ Quality & Safety, 22(Suppl 2), ii65-ii72. doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2012-001713

The gap in managing pain

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time you’ll know that I like practical research, and research that helps clinicians do what they do with humanity, compassion and evidence. One really enormous gap in the field is rarely mentioned: how do clinicians pull their assessment findings together and use them for clinical reasoning? Especially if you’re part of an interprofessional team (or work in a biopsychosocial framework). The silence in the pain literature is deafening!

There are any number of articles on what can be included in an initial assessment, most of them based on the idea that if factor X is an important predictor, it oughta be assessed. So we have a proliferation of assessments across (mainly) the biopsychological spectrum, with a teeny tiny bit of social (family relationships) thrown in, if you’re lucky. There are numerous papers proposing treatments for aspects of pain – anything from medications, to movement treatments, to cognitive treatments (yes, pain education), and behavioural treatments – but after reading them it almost feels like authors think anyone with pain that’s going on longer than we’d hope “should” have That Treatment, and then of course the person will be just fine.

Except that – there are just as many people with persistent pain today as there were 20 years ago, perhaps more (given the global burden of disease shows that low back pain is The Most Common problem associated with years lived with disability). In other words, all our treatments across all our specialties don’t seem to be having the impact that the research papers suggest they ought to. What gives?

I think it’s time to take a leaf from some of the better-conducted pharmacological studies. Yes, I said that! What I mean is that given our treatments especially for low back pain seem to have broadly the same or similar effects, maybe we need to look beyond the grouped analyses where individual differences are lost within the grouped data, and head to some of the sub-analyses proposed and used by Moore, Derry, Eccleston & Kalso (2013). In this paper, they advocate using responder analysis – who, exactly, gets a good result?

At the same time, I think we need to get much better at assembling, integrating and using the multitude of assessments people complete for us when we start treating them. Several points here: yes, we all carry out assessment but how well do we put them together to “tell the story” or generate a set of hypotheses to explain the crucial questions:

Why is this person presenting in this way at this time? And what can be done to reduce distress and disability?

I think case formulations may take us a step towards better use of our assessments, better clinical reasoning, better teamwork, and, most of all, better collaboration with the person we hope to help.

Case formulations are not new in psychology. They’re really a cornerstone of clinical psychological reasoning – assembling the information gathered during assessment into some sort of explanatory framework that will help the therapist generate possibly hypotheses about predisposing factors, what precipitated the problem, what perpetuates the problem, and any protective factors. Psychologists are no less prone to arguing about whether this approach works than anyone else – except they do some cool studies looking at whether they’re consistent when generating their formulations, and sadly, formulations are not super-consistent with each other (Ridley, Jeffrey & Robertson, 2017).

BUT here’s why I think it might be a useful approach, especially for people with complex problems associated with their pain:

  1. Case formulations slow our clinical reasoning down. “Huh?” you say, “Why would that be good?” Well because rapid clinical judgements on the basis of incomplete information tend to lead us towards some important cognitive biases – anchoring on the first possible idea, discounting information that doesn’t fit with that idea, we notice weird stuff more than the commonplace, we fill in information based on stereotypes, generalities and past histories, and we don’t shift from our first conclusion very easily. By taking time to assemble our information, we can delay drawing a conclusion until we have more information.
  2. By completing a consistent set of assessments (instead of choosing an ad hoc set based on “the subjective”) we reduce the tendency to look for confirmation of our initial hunch. I know this isn’t usual practice in some professions because that “subjective” history is used to guide assessments which are then used to determine a diagnosis – but the risk is that we’ll look for assessments that confirm our suspicions, meanwhile being blinded to possible alternative explanations (or hypotheses or diagnoses).
  3. Working together with the expert on their own situation (ie the person seeking help!) we build collaboration, a shared understanding of the person’s situation, and we can develop an effective working relationship without any hint of “one-up, one-down” that I can see appeals to “experts” who like to point out the “problems” with, for example, posture, gait, motor control and so on – all which may have little to do with the patient’s pain, and a whole lot more to do with creating a “listen to me because I Know Things” situation.
  4. Other team members can contribute their assessments, creating a common understanding of the various factors associated with the person’s situation. Common goals can be developed, common language about what might be going on, common treatment aims and enhanced understanding of what each profession contributes can happen when a formulation includes all the wonderful information collected across the team.
  5. If one of the treatments doesn’t work (ie the hypothesis doesn’t hold up to testing) there are other options to draw on – we’re not stuck within our own clinical repertoire, we can think across disciplines and across individual clinical models and become far more confident about knowing when to refer on, and how we can support our colleagues.

But, you know, I looked in the pain journals, searched far and wide – and I found few examples of case formulation for persistent pain. The best paper I’ve found so far is from a textbook – so not readily accessible. It’s Linton & Nicholas (2008) “After assessment, then what? Integrating findings for successful case formulation and treatment tailoring”. Where is the rest of the research?!!

Linton, S. J., & Nicholas, M. K. (2008). After assessment, then what? Integrating findings for successful case formulation and treatment tailoring. Clinical Pain Management Second Edition: Practice and Procedures, 4, 1095.

Moore, A., Derry, S., Eccleston, C., & Kalso, E. (2013). Expect analgesic failure; pursue analgesic success. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online), 346.

Ridley, C. R., Jeffrey, C. E. and Roberson, R. B. (2017), Case Mis-Conceptualization in Psychological Treatment: An Enduring Clinical Problem. J. Clin. Psychol., 73: 359–375. doi:10.1002/jclp.22354

Getting persistent pain and disability confused

As I read blogs and tweets and posts on social media, and even peer reviewed papers in journals, I often read that what we’re trying to do in sub-acute pain management is to prevent chronic pain from developing (note, when I talk about pain that goes on beyond healing, more than three months, or has no useful function, I may use the term “chronic” or I may use the more recent term “persistent” – they mean the same thing, except persistent has perhaps less baggage…).

I want to take aim at that focus – to prevent pain from persisting – and think carefully about it. Let’s take a 56 year old woman with a painful knee, a knee that’s been diagnosed as having osteoarthritis (OA). Now, although we have surgical management for OA (a knee replacement – uni-compartment or even a total knee replacement), in most cases surgeons are not enthusiastic about doing a knee replacement on a younger person, particularly someone who is active (plays netball, golf, runs, gardens). So if a knee replacement is not a thing – yet – what do we do? Most of us will know about the value of remaining active and fit, losing weight and maintaining good range of movement (see here for the NICE guidelines, 2017). We know that these things will maintain function – but they won’t stop cartilage deterioration (much, if at all), and they won’t stop the pain. No matter what we do – even medications are not always especially helpful – pain is likely to persist. Does that mean we’ve failed? Reading some of these blogs, it certainly seems it does.

Let’s take back pain – most of us will know back pain occurs periodically throughout life, from the time we’re teens, through to old age. In some people a single bout of back pain happens and then they’re fully recovered and never bothered again, but for many of us, we’ll be troubled with repeated bouts throughout our lives. And still others will have one bout than just never ends (Axen & Leboeuf-Yde, 2013; Vasseljen, Woodhouse, Bjorngaard, & Leivseth, 2013).  This is despite our best efforts to prevent the onset of low back pain, and to treat it effectively – pretty much all our treatments provide a small amount of help but only exercise has been shown to prevent a new bout after the first one (Choi, Verbeek, Wai-San Tam & Jiang, 2010) – and even then the evidence was “moderate” and only at one year.

So… when we begin to examine claims that by treating musculoskeletal problems early we can prevent pain from becoming chronic or ongoing, I think we need to stop and pause before letting the blood rush to our head.

If we can’t prevent pain from hanging around, what can we do? What is the aim of all this treatment?

Well, let’s take a quick look at the Global Burden of Disease (Hoy, March, Brooks, Blyth, Woolf, Bain et al, 2014). In this piece of work, “Out of all 291 conditions studied in the Global Burden of Disease 2010 Study, LBP ranked highest in terms of disability (YLDs), and sixth in terms of overall burden (DALYs). The global point prevalence of LBP was 9.4% (95% CI 9.0 to 9.8). DALYs increased from 58.2 million (M) (95% CI 39.9M to 78.1M) in 1990 to 83.0M (95% CI 56.6M to 111.9M) in 2010. Prevalence and burden increased with age.” [emphasis mine].

What this means is that although low back pain is not a fatal disease, that may well be the problem – people don’t die from low back pain, they live with disability all the days of their life. And worse, the burden of low back pain is increasing. And this is despite all the work we (you, me, the entire health system) is putting in.

If we can’t “get rid of” low back pain (and it looks like we don’t yet have the tools to do so), what are we trying to do?

Given our poor outcomes for completely curing low back pain, we need to aim to reduce the impact of pain on people’s lives.

And not just low back pain, but things like tennis elbow, frozen shoulder, neck pain, abdominal pain, pelvic pain, headache, migraine, osteoarthritis…

For a moment, let’s think about the effect on a person going through treatment, being promised that “pain education” will reduce their pain, that exercises will get rid of their pain, that gadget A or B will get rid of their pain, that treatment Y or Z will get rid of their pain. What do you think it feels like to be completely adherent about everything you’re being asked to do, but still feeling a failure because that pain does not go? Think of the language used by some of our colleagues – “failed back syndrome”? Who failed, exactly?

Before I get harangued for breathing the word that, ooops, our treatments don’t work very well, let me address the issue of “pain education” and pain intensity. Don’t forget that the only way we can know how much it hurts someone is by asking them. And our usual tool is that 0 – 10 scale, where 0 = no pain and 10 = most extreme pain imagined. Have you ever tried doing that on yourself? Seriously – how do you rate your own pain? Some of that pain rating is about how much we’re prepared to (capable of) putting up with. Some of that rating is about how bothered (fed up, distressed, frustrated) we are about our pain. Some of it is about “OMG I don’t know what this is and how long it’s going to go on for”.

What this means is that when someone gives an explanation it can –

  • make the experience less frightening,
  • less distressing,
  • more understandable,
  • less bothersome

and as a result, when we’re then asked for our pain intensity rating on that darned scale, we reduce the score we give our pain. It does not necessarily mean the pain has reduced in intensity – a pain scale is a means of communicating something about our experience, thus it’s a pain-associated behaviour with the purpose of communicating something. So if a person isn’t ‘convinced’ by our pain education, you know they’ll keep their score pretty high.

So, there are some people for whom we cannot reduce or get rid of their pain. It’s likely to persist. And it’s these people who can be viewed as “heartsink” patients, who hang around not getting better. Well, unless we begin looking at their experience and examine what they’re looking for (and believe me, it’s not pain reduction – it’s what pain reduction means they can do) we’re going to be stuck. And so will they. Let’s get it into our heads that pain reduction is not achievable for all, but reducing the impact of pain on life is something we can all help with. Let’s stop demonising the person who has to live with pain that doesn’t respond to all our ministrations and begin looking deeply at ourselves and why we avoid recognising that we can’t win ’em all. And let’s get on with the business of helping people do what’s important in their lives, irrespective of pain.



Axén, I., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2013). Trajectories of low back pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 601-612. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.berh.2013.10.004

Choi, B. K. L., Verbeek, J. H., Wai-San Tam, W., & Jiang, J. Y. (2010). Exercises for prevention of recurrences of low-back pain. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 67(11), 795-796. doi:10.1136/oem.2010.059873

Hoy, D., March, L., Brooks, P., Blyth, F., Woolf, A., Bain, C., . . . Buchbinder, R. (2014). The global burden of low back pain: Estimates from the global burden of disease 2010 study. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 73(6), 968-974. doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2013-204428

Vasseljen, O., Woodhouse, A., Bjorngaard, J.H., & Leivseth, L. (2013). Natural course of acute neck and low back pain in the general population: The HUNT study. Pain, 154(8), 1237-1244.