Working with a kinesiophobic person


One of the biggest challenges when working with someone who is fearful of pain and avoids movement is that although it’s very much like any sort of phobia, it differs on one essential point: people who are spider phobic, socially phobic, fearful of flying or heights or whatever are usually aware at some level that their fear is out of proportion to the ‘real’ risk. People who are kinesiophobic (kinesio – movement, phobic – fearful) are much more likely to believe that their fear is realistic and to have their concerns about moving despite pain reinforced both inadvertently and deliberately by others (including health professionals!).

So, to introduce the idea of beginning to move despite fear of pain or harm requires a bit of a delicate touch!

Some people advocate ‘just tell them’, and spend a good deal of time going through a psychoeducational approach about the difference between hurt and harm until they believe they have convinced the person that it’s OK to move. And sometimes this does reduce the ‘threat value’ of pain.
But just as the spider phobic person (and I was one!) is not reassured by the knowledge that in New Zealand we have very few poisonous spiders, and the one or two we do have are quite rare, the person who is afraid of moving when they are sore can remain unconvinced and continue to avoid moving despite the best ‘information’ or education available.

So, what can you do?
Well, let me tell you how I’ve started working with my current client. The man I’m working with is in his late 20’s, he has a slight disc bulge in his lumbar spine, with little evidence of nerve compression, and he has a 12 month history of low back pain.

His back pain started after he lifted some timber at work, and tripped, falling onto his side with the wood on top of him. He has had a very thorough orthopaedic examination, been seen by a neurosurgeon who doesn’t want to pursue surgery because of the somewhat equivocal findings both neurologically and on imaging studies. He’s now being seen by me and a physiotherapist, and having his low mood treated with pharmacology. He uses paracetamol for pain relief but no other medications.

Functionally, he still has good power in his lower limbs, has no neurological findings, but his activity level and movement patterns are extremely limited. He sits for about 3 – 5 minutes before getting up and slowly stretching. He walks (albeit slowly) to keep comfortable, and can stand for only a few minutes before leaning or stretching.

He has completed a set of questionnaires, including the short version of the Tampa Kinesiophobia Scale, and his score on this questionnaire was well above the cut-off we use to identify those a risk of kinesiophobia.

When I completed the 99 picture PHODA with him, he indicated he would not attempt nearly 70 of the pictures, including any pictures of bending forward, twisting his trunk, jarring (eg going up and down stairs, or riding a bike over a kerb or using a mini-trampoline), carrying anything, or reaching above his head. In his daily activities, he is not working, he makes his bed (he has a duvet only), carries out his personal activities of daily living, but is otherwise either inactive (lying down to rest), or he walks.

He is living with family who are doing all of the household activities, so his responsibilities are very low. In addition, he is quite depressed although starting to look more future-oriented, he has an unsupportive family who are quite critical of his limitations despite carrying out his household responsibilities, and he has broken up from a long-term relationship about six months ago.

I started with using a motivational interviewing approach, and suggested we review some of the areas that other people often find helpful when they are thinking about managing pain. Using a menu of options, he identified sleep, medication use, relationships and work as his main concerns.

I asked him what he had found useful about previous therapies, and also what he had found not so helpful about those approaches. My aim was to help him identify that his previous attempts to control his pain by avoiding activities had not reduced his pain, and had increased the difficulties he faced living his life according to the values he holds.

I asked him whether he thought his movement patterns were helping him or whether there were some not so good features about the way he moved. He agreed that although sometimes it meant that he could avoid doing a movement that he thought increased his pain, for much of the time his pain remained and he had to keep on being ‘careful’ of any movements he did, and this was exhausting!

I then asked him how important it was to him to be able to return to normal activities even if it meant he needed to bring his pain along as well – and he indicated that it was very important. Using the ‘scaling questions’ (Why do you think it’s so important to you? Why give it a 9/10 and not a 6/10?), he told me that he thought his life was becoming very restricted, he wasn’t able to work, and he didn’t think there was going to be a medical way to reduce his pain.

I then went through his confidence that he would be able to carry out normal activities despite his pain, and he told me it was 3/10. Once again, using ‘scaling questions’, I asked him what it would take to help him move his confidence up a little, had he ever successfully made a change in his life despite it being quite hard, and he was able to talk about how he had worked his way up in the workplace despite not being a proficient reader, and that he knew he could make changes because if he took things one step at a time, he could see progress.

I then went through the PHODA pictures, and asked him which of the images he thought were most important for him to be able to do. He indicated that bending forward (eg to do dishes and clean teeth) was important, and also to put on shoes and pick things up from the floor.

I suggested to him that we weren’t sure why he thought he shouldn’t do these things, and asked him what went through his mind when he thought of himself doing these activities. He told me immediately that as he looked at photographs of people bending he could see himself falling forward and hitting the ground, or he could see his vertebrae grinding ‘bone on bone’ and see himself clutching his back because of the pain saying ‘I couldn’t cope with that sort of pain’.

Three things to note here:

  1. the catastrophic image which generates an emotional response,
  2. the misbelief that his vertebrae had no ‘padding’ so they were ‘grinding’ when he moved, and
  3. the belief that he ‘couldn’t cope’ with high levels of pain

Each of these automatic thoughts/images are open to reappraisal, but unless they’re paired with actual movement, they are not likely to help him actually do things.

So – tomorrow I’ll discuss the next step in his programme: working towards ‘exposure’

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