Chronic Pain’s Favourite Tools


Teamwork and working with thoughts and beliefs.

Some therapists believe cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is ‘only’ for psychologists. Well, I’m not one of them. Frankly, if you are hoping to change ‘what people do’, you are using CBT…whether you’re doing it well or not – that’s another thing! (uhh.. that proviso holds for psychologists also)

What does it involve? It primarily involves identifying thoughts and beliefs, checking out the consequences of holding those beliefs, and providing the person you are working with some information about the implications of those beliefs. After this – it’s about doing something different to cement any belief change into place.

So, how does it all fit together? Well, in chronic pain it could work something like this…Anna attends her pain service. At intake, she is seen by three professionals – medical, functional and psychosocial (including work). She completes a set of questionnaires. At the end of the assessment, all her team sit together to discuss the aspects of her presentation that they feel are important. Using a common model of pain (biopsychosocial), her team review her questionnaires and develop a preliminary explanation (or hypothesis) for the development and maintenance of her current problems with pain. The team explains this model to Anna, who is able to confirm whether their findings ‘fit’ with her experience. She and the team agree that her main concerns are

  • poor sleep,
  • avoiding certain activities
  • low activity level

She starts with the medical person to begin new medications, and then returns to see whether these have helped.

On this occasion she also sees the occupational therapist and psychologist to review (together) a model of chronic pain, and the impact on her life. Anna specifies her main concerns about her sleep, and it is hypothesised that she is not doing very much during the day, and she is very worried about her future. Her general fitness level is low and she is fearful of increasing her activity level.

The working hypothesis for the team is: Anna has chronic pain, she has developed anxiety about her pain, and is avoiding activities that she believes will increase her pain. As a result of this she is not doing very much, and her body is quite ‘wound up’. She is both deactivated (and has lost fitness), and has poor sleep (because she has not exercise much, and lies awake worrying).

Once her medications have been stabilised, Anna starts to see the occupational therapist, psychologist and physiotherapist to begin working on her functional goals.

The occupational therapist is interested in Anna’s daily activity pattern and the activities she most wants to pursue, including work; the physiotherapist is keen to establish a fitness programme to increase her cardiovascular fitness; while the psychologist intends to help Anna become aware of how her worrying has become a habit prior to going to sleep.

As a team they all agree that Anna is anxious about experiencing pain, is worried that when she has pain she ‘won’t cope’ (but is not fully aware of what she means by not coping), and has developed avoidance patterns and engages in safety behaviours that she has inadvertently developed to ‘keep herself safe’.

The physiotherapist encounters Anna’s automatic thought that ‘this is going to be too much for me’ when she starts to get on the bicycle. The physio gently encourages Anna to define what ‘too much’ would be – and reassures her that Anna has the skills to cope even when she is sore. At the same time, the physio starts teaching Anna diaphragmatic breathing, using a the word ‘relax’ as a cue word on the out breath. After the session the physio talks to the occupational therapist who sees Anna next about Anna’s concerns about coping.

The OT starts the session by developing a hierarchy of activities that Anna has been avoiding, going from ‘least concerned about’ to ‘most concerned about’. While doing this, she encourages Anna to identify what her automatic thoughts are, and what she thinks those thoughts mean. She encourages Anna to continue with a daily walk or cycle, and ends the session with a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing using the cue word ‘relax’, and a posture-based relaxation. She gives Anna a notebook to record her walking or cycling, relaxation, and a copy of the posture-based relaxation.

Anna sees the psychologist last, and discusses the goals for the week. She and the psychologist talk through the meaning of anxiety and stress, and discuss the fight/flight/freeze response. The psychologist gives Anna a worksheet containing sentence stems about chronic pain, advises Anna on basic sleep hygiene and asks her to record her sleep in the diary. The psychologist also enquires about Anna’s exercise plan, and encourages Anna to work to get her heart rate to the target level.
In this example it’s hard to work out where the ‘psychology’ part begins and ends – and similarly where the OT and physio aspects begin and end.

This is teamwork, this is interdisciplinary, this is trust – and this is seamless service delivery.

Who benefits? Anna.

3 comments

  1. Right on! If only it worked that way. Here in NZ we are often told that we are working in an interdiscipliniary way but in practice it is always multidiscipliniary.
    Your schemata for Anna looks great!

  2. Graeme – I know exactly what you mean! (given that I work in both inter and multi disciplinary teams at Burwood Pain Management Centre!) It’s only by people like us working hard to generate the best interdisciplinary practice that change will happen. I think that will mean for some professions an increase in ‘marketing’, and sometimes it may even mean demonstrating through professional boards that things like CBT are generic (therefore not exclusive to one profession). It also means developing and infrastructure that supports interdisciplinary teamwork – meetings, processes to reach agreement and so on. I’m publishing an article in the NZ Pain Society journal on this very topic!

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