When do we need to say we’ve done enough?

This post is food for thought for both clinicians and people living with pain. It has come about because of a conversation on Facebook where some clinicians felt that people with pain are only being offered the option to “learn to live with pain” when their pain intensity could either be reduced or go completely.  And this conversation is one repeated countless times around the world when those living with persistent pain seek help for their disability and distress.

I’m going to declare my hand right now: I think a the problem in chronic pain management isn’t that people get offered “pain management” or “learning to live with pain” or “accepting pain” too often – I think it’s not happening often enough, nor soon enough. But let me unpack this a little more…

We know that in New Zealand at least one person in every six lives with chronic pain that has gone on for more than six months (Dominick, Blyth & Nicholas, 2011). We also know the seven day prevalence of low back pain in New Zealand is 35% (men) and 48% (women) (Petrie, Faasse, Crichton & Grey, 2014).

Treatments for painful conditions abound. From the simple over-the-counter approach (medication, anti-inflammatory creams, hot packs, cold packs) to hands-on therapies (massage, osteopathy, chiropractic, physiotherapy), to exercise therapies (Pilates, core strengthening, gym programmes, spin classes, walking, exercise in water), and finally to the multitude of invasive therapies (injections, neurotomies, decompression surgery, fusion). There is no shortage of treatments that aim to get rid of pain, fix the problem and get life back to normal. And for the most part these treatments provide modest improvement in both pain intensity and functional gains. For low back pain it seems there is no single wonderful treatment that works for everyone – hence the proliferation of treatments! (cos if there was a single treatment that worked, we’d all be offering it – like we do with a broken bone or appendicitis).

Here’s a question: if pain “management” (ie helping people learn to live with their pain) was the main offering to people living with pain, wouldn’t there be a heap of places to get this kind of treatment? At least in New Zealand there are relatively few pain management centres although there are many, many places to go for pain reduction.

I’ve tried to find studies looking at how people are told they have persistent pain that won’t be cured. Strangely, I have had incredible difficulty finding such studies. They may be there in the research literature – but they’re fairly uncommon and hard to find. And given how poorly low back pain guidelines are followed despite being promulgated since at least 1997, even if there were studies examining the best way to convey this news, I’d be surprised if anything was routinely incorporated into clinical practice.

So, in my opinion there are many more clinicians offering to help reduce pain than there are those offering to help people “learn how to live with pain”.

I was asked recently “when you do decide to stop pursuing pain reduction?” I think I said “it’s ultimately the decision of the person living with pain” – but it’s complicated by the way we as a culture perceive this option. I think most people would be horrified to think “I’m going to have a lifetime of living like this” when our beliefs about pain are influenced by and attitude that “pain = suffering”, “pain is unnatural”, “pain is a sign of something badly wrong”, “pain is something to get rid of”. I know when I was told “I’m sorry but there’s nothing more we can do for your pain” I was terribly upset thinking I had a lifetime of feeling awful to look forward to! I was 22 and had low back pain that would not go away after 18 months. I’m now 52 and I still have pain – but I can tell you that I have done almost everything I’ve wanted to including SCUBA diving, tramping, fishing, dancing, working full time (overtime), and parenting.

When do we begin to think about living with pain rather than curing it? I think we need to take a hard look at what this sentence means.

Firstly it means living. Life continues whether we’re feeling like we’re moving forward, or we’re putting things on hold to pursue a particular goal. Life doesn’t actually stop – but the things we want to experience, the things we want to do change over time. Our focus at the age of 22 is quite different from our focus at age 52 – and I hope it will change again at age 82! We don’t get to hit the replay button and live life all over again. We get one shot at it. This could feel quite awful if we’re contemplating a life where looking for pain relief is our primary goal – especially when that process involves an endless round of hope then despair as treatments are tried – and then don’t quite work out. Even the process of looking for treatments is slow, fraught with anxiety, and it eats up time in a week. For me, taking time out from living to pursue a treatment that may work means a process of weighing up the costs against the benefits. The costs include time, energy, emotional investment in the result, and the discomfort of the treatment itself. The benefits? Well, that depends.

The second part of that sentence is “with”. Living with pain. To me this means establishing my willingness to experience something I don’t enjoy – and believe me, I’m not a fan of pain! If all I have to look forward to is pain, pain, pain I’m not keen on doing it. BUT I am keen on living and bringing pain along with me (because frankly, my pain is coming along for the ride anyway). Living with pain to me means making room to experience pain fluctuations while doing things that bring value and meaning to my life. It means I ache – but I have a beautiful garden. I have sore legs – but I’ve been dancing. I have an aching back and neck and arms – but my house is clean. Here’s the thing: even if I didn’t work in my garden, dance or clean my house I’d STILL be sore! And I’d be bored, feel like I hadn’t achieved anything, and would have had to ask other people to help because many of those things still need doing.

The thing is, pain ≠ suffering.

When do we make a decision to stop pursuing pain reduction? Well, if I’m honest I’m still on the lookout for something that will help reduce my pain. And I think anyone who does live with persistent pain would agree that we don’t really want to have this experience, just like people who have cancer don’t want it, or diabetes or stroke or any of the myriad other chronic conditions humans are prone to getting, especially as we age. When asked, I’m sure most people with chronic pain would say “Yes” to pain reduction as a goal. BUT, and this is important, living life as fully and richly as we can is just as important.  I would bet that anyone with any of those chronic conditions would also just love to have them cured too.

But pain is a funny thing, there are myths and unhelpful beliefs coming from clinicians and our cultural norms about pain being a bad thing that must go. Compared with the beliefs and attitudes about other chronic conditions, this is unhelpful. We don’t find health professionals constantly pursuing treatments to “get rid of” diabetes, the focus is on management. And we accept that people who have cancer may choose to no longer accept treatment – and we support them by providing good hospice care. How often do people with chronic pain get (a) support to make a decision to live with their pain and (b) support to learn to do this well without feeling like second class citizens who have failed. We even have a group of clinicians calling people who haven’t responded to their treatments “failed back syndrome” as if the person’s back has failed rather than the treatment failing.

What makes me decide to pursue a new treatment that promises to reduce my pain? Well, it has to fit into my life. It can’t interfere with what’s important to me in terms of time, energy or discomfort. The odds need to be pretty good for me to even look at it – I want to see more than a single research paper showing its effectiveness. I would have to trust the clinician, and they’d have to respect me and my lifestyle and priorities. I’d want to make sure that clinician was going to stick with me and help me decide whether it’s worth doing. I’d want to see that the treatment would help me achieve my goals and priorities – otherwise I’m not really interested.

Is this because I’m weird (say yes!)? Or that I have less intense pain than other people? (nope, because you can’t compare my pain with anyone else’s, and because pain intensity ratings are strongly influenced by distress, mood, anxiety, how much pain interferes with life, attention, culture yada yada yada (Linton & Shaw, 2011). I think it’s because right now I’m too busy living, I get more joy and satisfaction from doing things that make me feel like myself. But remember I’ve been doing this since I was 22. And it’s a process. And I’m weird. I am a pain geek.

The thing is, unless clinicians promote living well with pain as an equally valid option to trying to get rid of it, people will continue to think that it’s impossible to have a really good life unless their pain is gone. And that, to me, is a tragedy, because we only have one life to live.


Dominick, C., Blyth, F., & Nicholas, M. (2011). Patterns of chronic pain in the New Zealand population. New Zealand Medical Journal, 124(1337), 63-76.

Linton, S. J., & Shaw, W. S. (2011). Impact of psychological factors in the experience of pain. Physical Therapy, 91(5), 700-711. doi:10.2522/ptj.20100330

Petrie KJ, Faasse K, Crichton F, Grey A. How Common Are Symptoms? Evidence from a New Zealand National Telephone Survey. BMJ Open. 2014;4(6). doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005374.


Of cabbages and kings…

Well, cabbages for knee osteoarthritis, anyway! In this interesting study, three approaches to managing knee pain from moderate osteoarthritis were put to the test. To be truthful, actually only two active treatments were compared – the third was “usual care”.

In a carefully conducted trial, where participants were randomly allocated to one of three groups, and the study organiser remained blinded to which group people were allocated, topical diclofenac gel, usual care or a cabbage leaf compress were applied over the course of four weeks.  Key outcomes were pain intensity and scores on the WOMAC, a common measure of the impact of osteoarthritis on daily life.

Participants were asked to rate their expectations on whether cabbage leaf or the gel would be successful in improving knee pain prior to the study commencing. Each person in the cabbage leaf group was asked to take one or two cabbage leaves, remove the hard stem, bruise the leaves, then wrap them around the knee with a bandage and leave for at least two hours, preferably overnight. In the gel group, participants were asked to rub the gel over the knee up to 4 times a day. In the treatment as usual group, participants were asked to continue with their usual routine and care, but not to begin any new treatments over the period of time.

What did they find?

Well, as a breastfeeding mother I well remember the pain of engorged breasts – and the relief I got from cabbage leaves (although I will never forgive the man who brought two half cabbages home, held them up in front of me and said “I think they’ll just about fit”!). I wondered if the same effect might have been experienced by participants in this study – and to a certain extent, yes! While the effect sizes were not large, a significant group difference was found between cabbage leaf wrap and usual care (difference, -12.1; 95% CI, -23.1,-1.0; P=0.033) after 4 weeks. No group difference was found between cabbage leaf wrap and gel (difference, -8.6; 95% CI, -21.5, 4.4; P=0.190).

A small but consistent decline in pain intensity was found in the cabbage leaf wrap and gel groups, but not in the usual care group over the four weeks of the study.

This trial found that a 4-week application of cabbage leaf wraps was more effective than usual with respect to pain, functional disability, and quality of life. It was, however, not superior to a 4-week application of topical medication. Patients were satisfied with both interventions, and except for 2 adverse events in both groups the applications were well accepted and tolerated.

What does this mean?

Well, for me this study shows that a simple, home remedy may provide some help for people who either can’t afford the cost of gel, or who don’t want to take a medication. This treatment truly is “natural”! The study design doesn’t allow us to conclude that cabbage leaf wraps are better than gel, or that it was the cabbage leaf itself that made a difference (participants and physicians had to know what was being administered because it’s fairly hard to hide a cabbage leaf!), so the results could be due to “meaning response” or placebo. And the pain reduction was very small – but nonetheless important to the participants.

What’s cool for me is that this is something people can choose to do for themselves. It doesn’t seem to have adverse effects (those reported in the study could be unrelated to the cabbage), and people find it relatively easy to use. Given the cost of pharmaceuticals, and the need to attend a doctor to get a prescription, to know there is a reasonable alternative (or even adjunct) seems useful.

Lauche, Romy, Romeikat, Nadine, Cramer, Holger, Al-Abtah, Jallal, Dobos, Gustav, & Saha, Felix J. (2016). Efficacy of Cabbage Leaf Wraps in the Treatment of Symptomatic Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Randomized Controlled Trial. The Clinical journal of pain. (in press)


Clinical reasoning “think aloud”

Occupational therapists are keen on helping people return to doing the things they value – meaningful activity, or participating in valued occupations (same thing, essentially). So, a person might come to see me because they have low back pain and want to work out how to get to work.

My first step is to understand what it is about the back pain that seems to be stopping the person from doing the tasks involved in their work. I usually begin by taking a history – what does the person understand about how their back pain came on, what’s their theory as to why it’s there, what have they done to help their recovery, how are they managing the everyday things they need to do right now. I ask about sleep, sex, personal care, daily routine, and in doing so I’m finding out about the person’s beliefs and attitudes towards their pain, their ability to regulate their arousal level, their mood, their confidence, the influence of others around them (both supportive – and those more subtle influences like their response when the person does something). I’m very careful to try to understand the contexts in which the person is having trouble – and what factors in the context might be supporting change.

In my mind I’m trying to establish a set of possible reasons for this person coming to see me at this time and in this way. I’m running through the various influences I know affect a person’s ability to engage in normal daily activities. Because I have a strong psychology background, I’ll consider functional behavioural analysis, but I’m also sensitive to personal values, cultural norms, and yes, even biological factors such as strength, range of movement, and motor control.

I can try to influence two things: the demands of the tasks in the context of work, and the capabilities of the person, but I need to keep a couple of things in mind.

  1. What is the effect of my intervention in the medium to long-term, not just the short-term?
  2. What does this person need in this context right now?

Depending on my clinical formulation, and the overall theoretical model I’m using, I can approach the decision-making in many different ways. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, so my end goal is to help this person develop the ability to respond flexibly to the demands of any situation. I want to keep in mind that what I do now can have a long-term influence on what they’ll do over time. Some occupational therapists may instead focus primarily on “what will solve the problem for this person right now” without always thinking about the long-term impact.  As a result, we can see some people with low back pain being given special seating, perhaps a new bed, some adaptive equipment so they can achieve the goal of “doing” – but at the same time, being unaware of the constraints this can put on the person being able to participate in other contexts.

For example, if my client is having trouble getting to work because he thinks his car’s seat should be fixed. If my focus was purely on helping him drive his car in comfort, I could consider assessing his car and giving him some cushioning to make it more supportive. There, problem fixed! But, let’s take a look at the effect of that intervention in the medium term. While he can drive to and from work, he’s learned that he “needs” a special seat or cushioning to help stop his discomfort. He’s also learned that his back pain is something he “shouldn’t” experience.

Based on what he’s learned from my intervention, what do you think can happen if he continues to experience back pain in the work setting?

His personal model of pain will have developed a couple of interesting quirks (and ones we often see in clients) – he’s learned that posture influences his back pain, and that there is a posture that “fixes” it. He’s learned that he should have his back in a particular position to be comfortable. He’s also learned that because he can influence his sitting position in the car, he “should” be able to influence his sitting position in other contexts – like, perhaps, his office desk or the seat in his digger. He might even, if his belief that his back “should” be in a particular position is especially strong, begin to try to keep his back in this position while doing other activities like walking or carrying things, or using tools. Most insidiously, he has learned that his back pain is something he should not have. It’s a sign to him that he has to “fix” his sitting position or he’s doing something wrong. But back pain is common, many factors influence it, and it often doesn’t settle completely.

If I instead want him to be able to respond flexibly to many different settings, I’ll need to think more carefully about my intervention. My underlying reasoning has to capture the workability of any suggestions I make – and workability not just in the car while driving, but at work, while doing other tasks, at other times.

I may work together with him to find out what it is about the pain in his back that particularly bothers him. Pain itself is usually not the problem – it’s what the pain represents, the effect on doing things both here and now, and in the future. In my client’s case, perhaps his back pain is particularly frustrating for him because he values getting to work and feeling ready for anything. He doesn’t want to feel like his goals are being blocked (he doesn’t want to feel exhausted and not ready for work), he doesn’t want his back pain, and his mind is telling him he needs to be “ready for anything” even though he is in the middle of a bout of back pain. In ACT terms, he’s avoiding the negative feeling of frustration, of potential failure, of feeling exhausted and his back pain, and he’s doing what all humans do – trying to control those emotions so that he doesn’t feel them! Makes perfect sense – except that the solution (giving him a cushion for his vehicle) could pose its own problems.

I can position my intervention in a couple of different ways. Honouring the value he places on being ready for anything at work, I can talk to him about how well that’s working for him right now, given he’s having a bout of back pain. Could he be willing to allow himself to be less “ready for anything” while he recovers from his back pain? I could also suggest that he could take the time to be present to his back pain, to be aware of and experience his back – and his feet, arms, shoulders and breath – while driving to work, so that he can notice the times when it’s really bothering him, and when it bothers him less, and that along with his back pain he also has areas of comfort and strength. I could provide him with a cushion – but ask him to think about what happens when he has to sit in other chairs, and ask about the workability of carrying a cushion wherever he goes.

The point is that while occupational therapists can help people do the things they want and need to do, some of our efforts can constrain people’s options over time. We don’t live the lives of our clients – but sometimes we can assume the client’s priority is to solve an immediate problem, while overlooking the other competing values the person also holds dear.

I’ve included some readings that have informed this blog post – while they’re not directly referenced in my post, they help inform my clinical reasoning.

Damsgard, E., Dewar, A., Roe, C., & Hamran, T. (2011). Staying active despite pain: Pain beliefs and experiences with activity-related pain in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 108-116. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6712.2010.00798.x

DeGood, Douglas E., & Cook, Andrew J. (2011). Psychosocial assessment: Comprehensive measures and measures specific to pain beliefs and coping. Turk, Dennis C [Ed], 67-97.

McCracken, Lance M., & Vowles, Kevin E. (2014). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness for Chronic Pain: Model, Process, and Progress. American Psychologist, 69(2), 178-187.

Stenberg, Gunilla, Fjellman-Wiklund, Anncristine, & Ahlgren, Christina. (2014). ‘I am afraid to make the damage worse’ – fear of engaging in physical activity among patients with neck or back pain – a gender perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 28(1), 146-154. doi: 10.1111/scs.12043

Trompetter, Hester R., ten Klooster, Peter M., Schreurs, Karlein M., Fledderus, Martine, Westerhof, Gerben J., & Bohlmeijer, Ernst T. (2013). Measuring values and committed action with the Engaged Living Scale (ELS): Psychometric evaluation in a nonclinical sample and a chronic pain sample. Psychological Assessment, 25(4), 1235-1246.

van Huet, H, & Williams, D. (2007). Self-Beliefs About Pain and Occupational Performance: A Comparison of Two Measures Used in a Pain Management Program. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health Vol 27(1) Win 2007, 4-12.


Making sense of pain

Humans have an incredible desire for things to make sense. We want things to fit a story or what’s expected – and we get right discombobulated (it’s a word) if we encounter a situation where things don’t make sense. To a certain extent we can blame our use of language for this, because it’s the way we’ve learned to pair words with concepts, and to associate multiple concepts together. For example, we learn “ouch” is associated with that unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that we’ve learned goes along with scrapes or bumps or cuts. We’ve also learned that “ouch” goes along with “it will go soon” and “don’t use that bit too much or it will hurt for longer” as well as “big boys don’t cry” and “you’re just being lazy if you don’t suck it up” and “whiners talk about their back pain all the time” and other similar notions. This is how humans connect visible objects (nouns) with words and other invisible concepts to create a network of meaning that, among others who share similar language and culture, means we can communicate with one another and go beyond the here and now and into the future and recall the past.

Even when events don’t make sense, we struggle to create a sense from it – we even say things like “this doesn’t make sense” as a way to classify the event along with a bunch of other “events that don’t make sense”. 

Why does this matter?

Well, because we want life to make sense, and to understand what we and others are up to, we create meaning and sense (coherence) even where there is no sense. Sometimes we grasp at straws (otherwise known as explanations from people who may not actually know what’s going on, but can spin a good tale). And at times, grasping at these straws means we ignore our own experience just so we can  hold on to what we think ought to be there. Here’s an example: some of us have back pain. We don’t know why it started, but we try to make sense of why we experience it by drawing on things we’ve been told by others – we might blame age, lifting “incorrectly”, weak “core” muscles, or differences in how long our legs are. Now the explanation itself doesn’t need to even be accurate – what’s important is that by accepting an explanation we become less sensitive to alternative explanations, and even more importantly, we begin to ignore what our own body feels like because we think we should believe what an expert tells us.

The problem with trying to make an explanation work for us, when it’s not necessarily so, is that in adopting that explanation we may find it a lot more difficult to respond flexibly to different situations. For example, if we’ve learned that back pain happens because of poor posture (where “poor posture” means not holding the spine a certain way), then we have more difficulty doing things when we’re in situations where being hunched over is the only way to get into an awkward situation, like when we have to lift a child into the back seat of a car, or put the pots back into the back of the bottom shelf of the cupboard.

Explanations for pain

Because pain is so common, and critical for human survival, we hold deep and powerful beliefs about what pain should mean, and how we should handle it. We probably all learned that pain is temporary and generally settles down once tissues have healed. We might have learned to hide our tears and not to ask for help when we’re sore. We probably grew up knowing that if tissues are really mangled, then it really hurts, and if it’s a paper cut it shouldn’t bother us. And we learned all the myriad concepts associated with pain – like being too withdrawn or tearful means we’re not really very brave, that if we get angry and hit out at someone who’s helping us with our pain, it’s very bad. We learned that it doesn’t hurt as much when someone “kisses it better”, and we learned that we should find out what’s wrong, get it fixed, and get over it.

But what happens when pain violates our past experience and all the explanations we’ve been given before?

What if we have pain that doesn’t disappear? What if the explanations we get given don’t fit with our own experience? What if the very things we’ve been told to do to “help” our pain actually make our lives worse? What if we’re clinicians who find that all the things we’ve been told should work – just don’t.

If we’ve been good learners, most of us will be unsettled by these inconsistencies. Things don’t add up. We probably keep on looking for “the answer” that will fix the problem. We’ll probably feel guilty and perhaps even a bit embarrassed that this pain is different. We might doubt our own experience and worry that we’re being just a bit pathetic or a really don’t want to get better. Or if we’re clinicians, we may wonder if the person wants to get better, or if they’re really doing the exercises the way they should…

And this isn’t helped by well-meaning people who might suggest that we should keep on looking for “the answer” – even when doing this gets in the way of important things we want to be able to do! So we might take the pills that make us feel groggy and constipated. We keep on doing the exercises that are boring and don’t seem to change anything. We do these things not because they work – but because we think they should work. And so we all get frustrated and irritated and just don’t live lives of richness and fulfillment. Perhaps we forget what we want our lives to stand for anyway.

Difficult conversations

It isn’t easy to talk about pain that doesn’t do what it ought to. Our very human nature makes the situation difficult. I’m hoping that by beginning to think more contextually, more about what works in the here and now, about having a range of options to try so we don’t get backed into an unworkable corner just because that’s what someone has suggested should work, that we the people (those living with chronic pain and those working with those who live with chronic pain) might gently and creatively develop some flexibility around what can be such a sticky  concept. Maybe that’s what resilience is?



“I know my pain doesn’t mean I’m damaging myself – but I still have pain”

In the excitement of helping people understand more about pain neuroscience, which I truly do support, I think it’s useful to reflect a little on the history of this approach, and how it can influence the experience people have of their pain.

If we go right back to the origins of pain self management, in the groovy 1960’s and 1970’s – the first truly significant work in chronic pain self management came from Wilbert Fordyce (Fordyce, Fowler & Delateur, 1968). Bill Fordyce was a clinical psychologist working in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. He noticed that when people were given positive reinforcement (attention, and social interaction) for “well” behaviour, and ignored or given neutral responses to reports of pain, their “up-time” or activity levels increased. Interestingly for occupational therapists, in the paper I’ve cited, occupation was used as an integral part of the programme and occupational therapy was a part of the programme (somewhat different from most clinics nowadays!)  Thus the operant conditioning model of pain behaviour and disability was first developed.

As practice progressed, clinicians began discussing the gate control theory of pain to help people understand how incredibly powerful descending pain modulation could be. Included in those discussions was the distinction between “hurt” and “harm” – that simply because something hurt, did not mean it was a sign of harm in the tissues.

As the 1980’s wore on, interdisciplinary pain management programmes became popular, with much of the work involving helping people reappraise their pain as “noise in the system”, and encouraging participants to develop strategies to increase activity levels and at the same time employ approaches to “close the gate” and thus reduce pain intensity.  I started working in pain management in the mid-1980’s when not only did I develop a patter to explain gate control, chronic pain, the relationship between the brain and what was going on in the tissues, I also started using the case formulation approach I still use today.

The key effects of this approach were pretty profound: people said to me they had never realised their pain wasn’t a fixed thing. The commonplace examples I used to explain why the relationship between their pain and what was going on in the tissues was complicated and uncertain made sense – everyone had heard of phantom pain, everyone knew of people who played rugby and didn’t feel the pain until after the game, everyone had heard of hypnosis for pain, and people also recognised that when they felt bad, so their pain felt worse but when they were busy and happy doing things, their pain was less of a problem.

I’ve attached one of the original examples of “explaining pain” to this post.simple-explanation-of-biopsychosocial-model-of-chronic-pain

Now the interesting thing is that during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, there was still a lot of talk about ways to abolish chronic pain. Loads of nerve cutting and burning, lots of surgical fusing and metalwork, heaps of pharmacological strategies were all the rage. People felt sure there was a way to stop all this chronic pain from appearing – and the answer was to begin early, before pain behaviour was established, before people got the wrong idea that their pain was intractable.  As a result the “yellow flags” or psychosocial risk factors for chronicity were developed by Kendall, Linton & Main (at least in NZ). This created a great flurry of ideas about how to “get people moving”, and “assess and manage yellow flags” which have subsequently flourished and become a veritable rainbow of flags.

Sadly, I haven’t seen any significant reduction in the rates of chronic pain, or rates of disability associated with chronic pain – although there do seem to be fewer people having five or six or more surgeries for their lower back pain. Instead, there’s a far greater emphasis on “explaining pain” from the beginning – a good thing, you’d think! But hold on… a recent conversation on Facebook suggests that the purpose of explaining pain may have been misconstrued, perhaps even over-interpreted…

When we begin to untangle some of the elements involved in our experience of pain, we can see that at least part of the “yuk factor” of pain lies in our appraisal or judgement of what the pain signifies. Let me give you an example – say you were walking down a dark alley and someone approached you with a loaded syringe. They stab you with the needle! What do you do? Well – probably you’d run for the nearest Emergency Department, and my bet is that you’d be well aware of the sting of the needle as it went in. Now think about the last time you got your flu jab – same stimulus, but your response is likely to be quite different. You’ll notice the sting of the needle, but it will quickly fade, and you’ll generally be calm and matter-of-fact about it. Your appraisal of the sting is quite different from what I guess you’d be thinking if you’d been stuck by a needle in a dark alleyway.

When people are asked to rate their pain intensity, at least some of the “score” given on a visual analogue scale can be attributed to the “distress” portion of the pain experience. The part that we can attribute to “what this experience signifies to me”. And this is the part that an explanation about pain can influence – and thus pain intensity ratings can and do drop once a helpful explanation is given. BUT it does not change the biological elements, nor the “attention grabbing” aspects of pain (well, maybe the latter can be a little bit changed because if we don’t think of the experience as representing a threat, we can more readily put it aside and focus on other more important things).

Why is this important? Well, in the enthusiasm to explain pain to everyone, I think sometimes the application can be a bit blunt. Sometimes it becomes an info-dump, without really taking the time to listen to what the person is most concerned about. It may not be that they think their pain represents harm – instead it may be that they’re not sleeping well, or that they’re finding it hard to concentrate at work, that they’re worried about the effect of pain on their ability to drive safely. Because quite apart from the “yuckiness” of pain, pain intensity also has an effect on cortical processing space. And an explanation of the mechanics doesn’t take away the poor sleep, the worries about work, or make it easy to drive home. And there are times when the person remains unconvinced by an explanation – or has “head knowledge” but it makes no difference to what they’re doing. From our own experience in life, we know there’s a big difference between reading about something – and actually doing it. Experiential learning trumps “head knowledge”

Do I think it’s important to explain pain neurobiology? Most of the time, yes. But we need to do this with care, compassion and sensitivity.  We need to think about why we’re doing it. And we need to recognise that for some people, explanation doesn’t change their pain intensity, it just changes their judgement about the meaning of their pain – and if their concerns are about the effect of pain on their life, then an explanation may not be the most useful thing. And most of all, we need to remember that reducing pain intensity is not really the most important outcome: doing more is probably more important.


Fordyce, Wilbert E., Fowler, Roy S., & Delateur, Barbara. (1968). An Application of Behavior Modification Technique to a Problem of Chronic Pain. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 6(1), 105-107. doi:

Okifuji, Akiko, & Turk, Dennis C. (2015). Behavioral and Cognitive–Behavioral Approaches to Treating Patients with Chronic Pain: Thinking Outside the Pill Box. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 33(3), 218-238. doi: 10.1007/s10942-015-0215-x


Guide, don’t instruct: how we talk within sessions

Do you remember your favourite teacher in school? Mine was Mrs Jackson, teacher of my Form 2 class (I think I was 12 years old). She was an outstanding teacher because she expected that we’d do well. She also didn’t tell us what to do – she helped us explore. And if there was one thing I’d like to have happen in therapy sessions with clients, it would be that we learn how to guide instead of instructing.

It’s only recently that I’ve learned why guiding and facilitating is so much more helpful than telling or instructing, and yes it’s because I’ve been reading Villatte, Villatte & Hayes Mastering the Clinical Conversation.

Have you ever noticed that when we give an instruction like “Sit up straight” or “Use your core” our clients attend to how well they’re doing just that – sitting up straight, or using the core – and at the very same time, they no longer attend to other aspects of their movement (or the context, or even the purpose of the movement). It’s a human tendency to focus on a particular set of features of our environment – and it certainly helps us cognitively because it means we don’t have to attend to everything all at once. BUT at the same time, it means we become relatively insensitive to other features occurring at the same time.

Rules or instructions have their place, or they wouldn’t still be being used in therapy – but their utility depends on how rigidly they’re applied. It makes sense for a super athlete to really focus on certain aspects of their performance, especially when they’re training, and especially when there’s one particular set of movements that will maximise their performance. For people living with pain, however, life is not about a set of performance goals. Instead, it’s about being able to respond adeptly to the constantly changing demands of their lives. And one thing people living with pain often have trouble with is being able to notice what’s happening in their own bodies.

Let’s unpack this. People living with chronic pain live with ongoing pain in certain parts of the body – and human tendencies being what they are, we try to avoid experiencing those sore bits, so our attention either skips over the painful area or it focuses almost exclusively on the sore bits and not on other parts (technically this could be called experiential avoidance). By working hard to avoid experiencing the sore bits, or alternatively focusing entirely on those sore bits, people living with pain often fail to notice what actually happens during movement.

As therapists, we can complicate this. We can instruct people (give them rules) about the movements they “should” be doing. We try to ‘correct’ posture. We advise people to use specific lifting techniques. We say “use your core”.

The effect of these instructions is to further lead our patients away from experiencing what is happening in their body. Instead of becoming aware of the way their bodies move, they attend to how well they’re following our instructions. Which is fine – until the person experiences a flare-up, or moves into a new environment with different demands, or perhaps we complete our sessions and discharge them into the wild blue yonder.

So, people with chronic pain can progressively become less aware of how their body actually feels as they do movements, and at the same time, try to apply rules we’ve given them that may not be all that helpful in different contexts.

We end up with the plumber trying hard to crawl under a house, carrying all her tools, while at the same time being worried that she’s not “using her core”. Or the piano teacher trying to “sit up properly” while working with a student on a duet. And the nurse, working one day in a busy ward with heavy patients, and another day in a paediatric ward, trying to “lift properly” using the same technique.

If we want to help people respond effectively to the widely differing contexts they’ll experience in everyday life, perhaps we need to take some time to help people learn to trust their own body, to experience both painful areas – and those that aren’t painful. We might need to help people work out fundamental principles of movement to enable them to have movement variability and flexibility – and to adjust and adapt when the contexts change.

To do this, we need to think about the way we help people learn new ways of moving. There are two fundamentals, I think.

  1. Guiding people to attend to, or notice, what is – including being OK about noticing painful parts of the body. The purpose behind this is to help people become aware of the various movement options they have, and the effect of those options on how they feel. We might need to guide people to consider not only pain, but also feelings of strength, stability, responsiveness, reach, movement refinement, subtlety, delicacy and power. To achieve this, we might need to spend time developing mindfulness skills so people can experience rather than attempting to change what they experience. The art of being willing to make room for whatever experience is present – learning to feel pain AND feel strength; feel pain AND relaxation; feel comfort AND power.
  2. Guiding people to use their own experience as their guide to “good movement”. In part, this is more of the same. I use words like “experiment” as in “let’s try this as an experiment, what does it feel like to you?”, or “let’s give it a go and see what you think”, or “I wonder what would happen if….” For example, if a person tries to move a box on a ledge that’s just out of reach, how many of you have told the person “stand a bit closer?” While that’s one way of helping someone work out that they might be stronger if they’re close to a load, what happens if the ground underfoot is unstable? The box still needs to be moved but the “rule” of standing close to a box doesn’t work – what do you think might happen if the person was guided to “Let’s try working out how you can move the box. What’s happening in your body when you reach for it?” then “What do you think you might change to make you feel more confident?” (or strong, or stable, or able to change position?).

When we try guiding rather than instructing, we honour the person’s own choices and contexts while we’re also allowing them to develop a superior skill: that of learning to experience their own body and to trust their own judgement. This ultimately gives them more awareness of how their body functions, and the gift of being flexible in how they approach any movement task.

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


Dealing with distress

From time to time anyone who works with people trying to help them make changes in their lives will encounter someone who is overwhelmed, distressed and generally not willing to (or able to) take even a tiny step forward. It’s hard for us as therapists because, after all, we want to help people – but hey! This person in front of us just isn’t up to it!

I think many of us who weren’t trained in psychology can find it really hard to know what to do, and like all humans, we deal with feeling helpless by hoping to avoid it.

Some of us will tell people what to do – this is the way most of us were trained, so it’s what we do when under threat. We might couch this advice in fancy words, but essentially we try to get the person to make a change on the basis of our expertise and superior position. After all, the person came to us for help, right?

Some of us will feel stuck ourselves. Perhaps we’ll give up, or blame the person we’re sitting in front of. They’re not motivated/willing/ready so we stop trying and back off.

In both of these situations, the person’s actual needs at the time can be inadvertently ignored. They’re distressed and we either ignore and advise, or back off – when perhaps what they’re really wanting is someone to be present with them and offer them time to work together on the next best step they can take.

Here’s one way I’ve used to help people who are stuck, distressed and not certain.

  1. Be fully present and let them express what’s going on. This means listening, perhaps asking “can you tell me more about that?” or “it’s tough but are you willing to talk me through what’s going on for you right now?” or “what’s your theory on why you are feeling what you’re feeling?”
  2. Listen with an open and enquiring mind and heart. That means absorbing what they’re saying without trying to respond to it. At the most, you can reflect what you hear, perhaps saying things like “I think I understand that you’re feeling [sad, afraid, overwhelmed], do I have this right?”, or “From what you’re saying, you’re not sure [what’s going on with your rehab] and this is incredibly hard”, “if I’ve heard what you’re saying… is that what you mean?”
  3. Breathe and be mindful of your own response before charging on with the session. It’s OK to tear up if someone is saying something that would make you feel sad. It’s OK to feel aghast that this terrible thing is happening. It’s OK to notice your own body tighten up, your breathing change, not to know what to say. Just notice this in yourself BEFORE you respond. If you do feel something, respond naturally – normalise the experience described by the person as being something anyone in their shoes would feel, and reflect your own response to it. You can say things like “Oh that sounds like such a tough situation” or “I feel a bit tearful myself when I listen to what you’ve been through”, or “I really don’t know how to respond to what you’ve said, I’m lost for words, it’s really hard”.  The purpose behind doing this is to acknowledge that we’re human too, and get affected by what we hear. To be transparent and real so that the person is aware of your own readiness to “show up” and be fully present alongside them.  If you need a moment to catch your breath after they’ve told you something emotionally charged, say so.
  4. When you do respond, summarise what you’ve heard and ask them if that’s what they intended to mean. In motivational interviewing terms this can be called “giving a bouquet” – collecting together a summary of what the person has said, then offering it back to them to check you’ve understood (and it also shows them you’ve been listening).
  5. Before doing anything else, ask them “where does this leave you?” or “what do you think you should do right now?” or “what’s the next step for you now?” People have ideas about what to do next, most times, and we work more effectively with those ideas than if we try to bolt on some piece of advice without recognising their thoughts.

A couple of nice tools to use at this point are the choice point  , and the matrix by Dr Kevin Polk.

The hardest part of responding this way is often our own response. Because we feel uncomfortable, and we’re aware of timeframes, expectations, and because we probably don’t enjoy people crying or being angry in our sessions, we often don’t want to take the few moments needed to be present with someone who is in the middle of it all. Being present is about being there and not trying to change the situation, or rush away from it, or fix the problem – it’s about being willing to bear witness and honour the vulnerability that person has shown us. What a privilege!

It can be emotionally tough after a day of seeing people who are feeling distressed. I think this is where using mindfulness as I’ve described above can be really worthwhile. Noticing what our body is doing when someone is distressed can help us notice the work we do (and help explain why some of us don’t want to talk to anyone at the end of a hard day!). The odd thing is, that when we honour someone by being present and not trying to change their situation at the time, we often find the person is ready to move on and engage in therapy far more quickly than if we’d tried to “make” it happen. At least, that’s my experience!

A good clinician once told me “never be afraid of allowing someone to have a crisis, because after a crisis, shift happens”. I’ve found that to be true.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this post – I don’t have loads of references for it, but a couple that come to mind are:

Beach, Mary Catherine, Roter, Debra, Korthuis, P. Todd, Epstein, Ronald M., Sharp, Victoria, Ratanawongsa, Neda, . . . Saha, Somnath. (2013). A Multicenter Study of Physician Mindfulness and Health Care Quality. The Annals of Family Medicine, 11(5), 421-428. doi: 10.1370/afm.1507

Goubert, Liesbet, Craig, K., Vervoort, Tine, Morley, S., Sullivan, M., Williams, A., . . . Crombez, G. (2005). Facing others in pain: The effects of empathy. Pain, 118(3), 285-288. doi:


Flexibility: not just movement variability

For many therapists, learning the Right Way to treat a person experiencing pain means following rules. Observe this, identify that, follow the yellow brick road and end up with the right result. The problem is that people don’t always respond in the way the rules suggest meaning both clinician and patient can be confused about what to do next. While it’s normal to generate clinical heuristics, or rules of thumb, these can limit the way we approach helping someone.

I’ve been pondering this as I’m reading Villatte, Viullatte and Hayes Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. I posted last time I wrote about the problems that language can pose for us as we attend to the concepts and relationships those word generate for us rather than noticing what is actually happening right here and now. I was originally thinking of the people we work with and treat, but now I want to turn my attention to us – because we too can be imprisoned within rules that function well in one context – but hamper flexible responses in other contexts.

The rules we follow

Some of the rules we learn during our initial clinical training can be very helpful – for example, we learn that we need to attend to what people say and do; we learn to suppress our judgements about the person as “likeable” or “unlikable” (hopefully); we learn the importance of using correct terminology with one another. Other rules are far less helpful: in my case, learning that people “should” use a raised toilet seat after hip replacement (almost irrespective of the bathroom they have, the alternatives they’d already organised, or whether it actually reduced the risk of hip dislocation) meant that I tried to give the things out to people who didn’t actually need them. I quickly stopped doing that after I found too many of those toilet seats dumped on the roadside inorganic rubbish collection! And I became more sensitive to who, what, when and where. And I changed my thoughts once I read the research suggesting those “hip precautions” perhaps don’t hold up to scrutiny (for example: Schmidt-Braekling, Waldstein, Akalin, et al, 2015; Ververeli, Lebby, Tyler & Fouad, 2009).

We follow many other clinical rules – for example, we attend to certain features of a person’s presentation because we’ve been told it’s important. Depending on the model or theory we hold about the problem, we’ll attend to some things and not others.

Similarly in terms of our treatments – we’ve been told that some treatments are “good” and others not so. Some of us follow these rules very strictly – so patients are told to move in certain ways, to avoid certain movements, to do six repetitions of an exercise, to stop for a break every hour – and some of us have even been quite frustrated because the patients we’ve been advising tell us these rules aren’t working. We think “but they should”!

Explaining pain

A good example of this is the push to ensure every person experiencing pain gets an explanation for their pain. We’ve seen the evidence showing it’s a good thing, and we’ve even learned a set of phrases that we’ve been told “work”.

BUT is this a rule we should always follow?


In some instances giving pain education is unhelpful. Times I can think of are when a person is presenting with high pain intensity and in an acute situation – or when they’re stuck with an explanation they prefer and aren’t ready to consider another, or when they have other more important concerns.

Based on what I’ve been reading, perhaps we need to consider some alternative ways of looking at this “rule”.

Here’s the thing: for some people, at the right time, and when the person is being helped to discover for themselves, learning about pain neurobiology is a really good thing. But if we apply this as a rule, we risk becoming insensitive to other things the person might need AND to whether the education has had the intended effect. For some people, it’s not the right thing – the outcome for THAT person might be seen in increased resistance to your therapeutic approach, or arguing back, or them simply not returning because we “didn’t listen” or “told me it’s all in my head”. For others, this information might be useful but not as important as identifying that they’re really worried about their financial situation, or their family relationships, or their mood is getting them down, or they’re not sleeping…

Am I suggesting not to do pain education? Not at all. I’m suggesting that instead of developing a rule that “everyone must have pain education because it’s good” (or, for that matter, any other “must”), clinicians could try considering the context. Ask “is this important to the client right now?”, “what effect am I hoping for and am I measuring it?”, “how can I guide the person to draw their own conclusions instead of telling them?”

In other words, attending to those contextual cues might just help us think of a bunch of alternative ways to help this person achieve their goals. And if we then ask the person to collaborate on HOW to reach those goals, suggesting the plans are experiments that both of you can evaluate. This helps reduce our human tendency to latch onto an idea, and then create a rule that isn’t always helpful.


Schmidt-Braekling, T., Waldstein, W., Akalin, E. et al. Arch Orthop Trauma Surg (2015) 135: 271. doi:10.1007/s00402-014-2146-x

Ververeli P, Lebby E, Tyler C, Fouad C. Evaluation of Reducing Postoperative Hip Precautions in Total Hip Replacement: A Randomized Prospective Study. ORTHOPEDICS. 1; 32: doi: 10.3928/01477447-20091020-09 [link]

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


Being flexible – and how language can make you inflexible

One of the reasons humans seem to dominate our natural world is our flexibility. We don’t have the best eyesight, hearing, strength, speed, stamina or indeed any single attribute that means we’re King (or Queen) of the Jungle, but what we do have is the ability to adapt our environment to maximise the benefits to ourselves. Being flexible means we can find many different ways to achieve a certain goal. It means we don’t get stuck using the same solution when that solution doesn’t work. We try lots of different ways to achieve what we want.

Or are we?

There are plenty of times when I’ve had to firmly remind myself “the definition of insanity is to try doing the same thing again and again, hoping for a different result” I have no idea where that quote came from, but it seems applicable!


Thankfully, humans don’t have to experience adverse events directly to learn from them. We can learn from what other people tell us. Sometimes what others tell us is helpful – “watch out, walking on a sprain is gonna hurt!” Other times, when what someone tells us is true – but not applicable in our context – we can learn something that isn’t helpful. “Watch out, walking on anything painful is bad”. We can over-generalise or develop an arbitrary rule that is inflexible.

Now this happens all the time. We learn to avoid things that could potentially harm us on the basis of words – parents, teachers, friends, officials all tell us not to do things that could harm us so we avoid dangers without actually having to face them. When we learn this, the function or relationship between events and the way we relate to them gets influenced by what we’re told rather than the actual event itself. So, for example, we learn that when someone tells us off for doing something dumb, we re-experience what it feels like to be ashamed. We don’t want to experience shame, so we avoid situations that look like (function in the same way as) whatever it was we might have done to be told off.

Experiential avoidance and symbolic generalisations

Because we use language to depict these situations and because language can bring back all those associations between the event, object, emotions and experiences, we quickly learn to generalise these relationships – in RFT (relational frame theory) terms, we develop symbolic generalisations. What this means is that even though the actual object, event, emotion etc is not present, just describing something like those things can elicit the same response. And when we don’t like that experience we use every means possible to avoid experiencing it – so we avoid, try to forget, try not to think about it, keep busy, avoid talking about it, pretend it’s not there.

Through avoiding, we develop a whole lot of new associations – “doing this to avoid that” begins to relate “this” to whatever we’re avoiding. So, for example, keeping busy to avoid feeling sad can become a trigger for sad feelings. Sitting stiffly and avoiding bending can become a trigger for worrying about the potential for pain if we do bend.  So, doing things that help us avoid a  negative association can build into a whole set of behaviours that initially help us avoid but ultimately elicit the very things we were hoping not to experience. We become inflexible as the rules we use develop into constraints across a larger range of stimuli/experiences than we originally intended.

Deliberately trying to avoid an experience is tricky, there can be a whole lot of unintended consequences – and no more so than when the negative experience we’re trying to avoid is pain.

Rule-governed behaviour

The thing is, once we develop a rule we begin to follow the rules rather than trying it out ourselves. We place less emphasis on our own experience. Let’s use an example from pain. A person feels uncomfortable bending over while carrying a laundry basket. A kind therapist suggests that bending over isn’t safe, so the person should use “safe handling” techniques. While the therapist is present, the person uses the so-called safe techniques but all the while thinks “if I bend over incorrectly, it must be unsafe because these are “safe handling” techniques”. The person develops a rule. Now when the person begins to move something she uses the “safe handling” techniques but finds it really difficult at times because she has to lift children into the back of the car so they can get into the car seat. She feels worried that she’s not using the “safe handling” techniques rather than feeling what actually happens when she lifts the child.  She instead avoids lifting the child into the car and asks for help. Another person comes along, scoops the child up, plonks him into the car seat and the job’s done.

Rules are helpful, they save us time and harm. They’ve accelerated our rate of learning. BUT they come at the expense of flexibility. There are times when it’s useful not to use “safe handling” techniques – ever tried crawling under your house with a bag of tools? Or get a screaming toddler into the back seat of a two-door car?

Rules also begin to influence the associations we make between events – before the kind therapist advised the person that she should use “safe handling” techniques, the person never thought about how she got the children into the back seat of the car. Now she does. And every time she lifts something off the ground she also thinks about her back. And when she carries her groceries. And bends over to make the bed. And maybe even as she reaches overhead to get something from a cupboard. Or lifts the ironing board and opens it out.

How stuck is that? And how often have we as clinicians inadvertently generated rules that teach our clients to avoid a movement or experience?

Next week: pliance and tracking and what these mean…

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

Pacing: why do people use it?

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

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

Please spread the word!









Click the link