Establishing routines and baselines: Baseline recording

One of the problems novice clinicians often complain about is that journals and research papers rarely examine or provide practical approaches to daily problems that are encountered when working with people who have chronic pain.

It can take a lot of work to locate suitable approaches to things like:

  • ways to help a person who is not accepting that a cure for chronic pain is unavailable
  • ‘motivating’ a person to engage in activities that are anticipated to increase pain
  • how to develop a baseline and establish an appropriate rate of progression
  • how to establish a daily routine

It’s tempting to think that in the absence of evidence-based approaches, the clinical skills are artistic rather than scientific, but I’m not so sure about that.  Maybe it’s more a case of lack of systematic documentation about methods used, or lack of systematic examination of the ways in which these often non-sexy and very practical strategies might be improved (subtle hint to clinical researchers here!).

Anyway, there are a few approaches that I’ve collected for developing a daily routine and baseline.  To date I don’t have publications to cite in their defense, so you’ll need to join me in exploring how and whether these work to help people with chronic pain become aware of their activity patterns.  First up: Baselines

There is good evidence that simply by recording what happens on a daily basis, positive changes can begin to occur.   This is a basic behavioural approach that has been used in eating disorders, smoking cessation, exercise, diabetes blood sugar monitoring and treatments for OCD.  It’s the principle that by having feedback available about often habitual activities, we’re more aware of them, and can begin to recognise antecedents and consequences of the behaviours in question.

The process of recording what happens, when it happens, and what comes after is often called ‘establishing a baseline’.  Clinicians unfamiliar with psychological use of baselines use the term without realising that, for behaviour change, the natural variations in behaviour need to settle into some sort of pattern in order for it to be called a ‘baseline’.

Variations in activity levels, for example, may not occur over the course of a single day or even over the course of a week.   If we don’t spend the time exploring variations over time until they’ve settled into a recognisable pattern, it can seem as if there are no patterns and fluctuations occur in a totally random way.

Once a baseline is recorded, we can start to analyse the antecedent triggers or events might be (ie the things that come before a behaviour), and the consequences of each type of behaviour.  This can help us identify the type of situation the person has trouble managing effectively (or in a way that is aligned with the person’s values in the long term).

For example, we might notice that it’s often after a period of feeling relatively comfortable that the person suddenly starts increasing his/her exercise demands.  After a few days of increased exercise, he/she might suddenly stop.  It’s important to explore the reasons the person felt it was important to increase exercising – automatic thoughts about being ‘lazy’ for feeling OK but not making the most of it? or automatic thoughts that the pain has ‘gone’ and ‘I’m cured’ so it’s time to start doing things normally again? or did the person get ‘bored’ of doing the same old thing and seek something more stimulating and blow their energy budget?

There are loads of ways to record baseline activity – diaries similar to an appointment diary; recording sheets that have several things to track such as sitting time, distance walked, thoughts about situations – and for people with high-tech backgrounds, electronic diaries that ask the person to note their activity as they go just by clicking on a button on a phone or PDA or iPad.

There is some research on whether there are differences in the quality of information collected via pen and paper through the day, or whether an ‘end of day’ record is sufficient.  I think it depends on the purpose of your assessment, and it also depends on the ‘pen-and-paper-ness’ of the person you’re working with!  In other words, it’s going to be difficult for a heavy labourer with limited access to pen and paper and low literacy to complete a detailed activity diary throughout the day, but if you’re asking a busy executive who is used to carrying a PDA or iPad around with them to do the same activity electronically, it’ll probably happen.

One simple electronic method of recording ‘up-time’ is a simple pedometer.  Taped up so it can’t be opened, it can be worn for three or four days, then opened, the total number of steps recorded, divided by the number of days, and there is a rough measure of general activity level.  This can help when developing and monitoring activity level over a longer period, such as when you’re helping someone begin a walking programme, or to maintain an even level of activity each day.  Just by recording the number of steps over a fortnight or so, with a target of maintaining the same number of steps each day, the person has a target to aim for and it can act as feedback on their overall activity level and help shape their activity behaviour.

More on ways to establish routines next time!  If you find this interesting and want to know more, or have questions, don’t forget you can post a comment below, and I’ll do my best to help.  I’m also collecting some diary and other recording formats that I’ll post in my next post.


  1. Brilliant post Bronnie, on a topic that interests me greatly. I’m very much looking forward to your further thoughts and ideas. We carried out (and have not yet published – long story) a study on an adapted pacing method for coping with fatigue in advanced cancer. We used a diary (daily for 4 weeks) with mixed success to capture changes in daily perceptions of triedness and strategies implemented. We didn’t capture baseline activity, instead looking at the change in fatigue levels and coping as measures of outcome. Baseline data on activity levels would potentially have been an interesting and useful addition, but possibly hard to collect (deteriorating rather than chronic illness).

    Incidentally (off at a bit of a tangent here), the intervention was based on one that was being trialled in a study of chronic fatigue – the PACE trial – which has just been published in the Lancet. (2011 Vol 377 p823) – I can send you the PDF if you’re interested. Adapted pacing was shown not to be effective, whereas CBT and graded exercise both had a significant impact on fatigue. The editorial in the same issue suggests that: “The central role of cognition in relation to fatigue might explain why graded exercise therapy is effective and adaptive pacing therapy is not. Both treatments aim to increase activity, but the activity-related cognition is probably diff erent in adaptive pacing therapy—“I have to focus on how fatigued I am in order to stop in time, I can’t do more, I have to stop”—from that in graded exercise therapy—“I am able to do more than I thought I could” (ie, less focused).”

    1. That’s a really interesting study Gail, I’m rushing off to get it as soon as I’ve finished replying!
      I think the cognitive aspects of using ‘pacing’ is a very useful framework. I also think the behavioural aspects of a relationship between activity and fatigue/pain and stopping is important. If we apply a behavioural model to it, most times people link the activity to the perception of fatigue or pain – stopping reduces or removes the negative experience (often intermittently), and in so doing rewards the behaviour, increasing the likelihood that next time the person experiences fatigue/pain he or she will be likely to stop whatever they’re doing.

  2. It’s tempting to talk more about the PACE trial. I always think of pacing as a strategy so that an individual can do more, not less. The assumption in that trial was that pacing was an acceptance of wiorking with finite resources.

    The comment I got on here to make was that another interesting outcome for daily routines would be sleep studies. If daily routines can affect the stages of sleep, so that there is more time spent in deep sleep, this could assist with function and coping. Do you know of any OT research that has used this as an outcome?

    1. Hi Bonnie
      No I don’t know of occupational therapy research looking at this, and I’m not familiar with sleep literature enough to think of any specific references off the top of my head. It would be a fabulous study for someone to do though!!

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