No-one wants to be told their pain is “in your head”. But given our increasingly sophisticated understanding of pain neurobiology, there’s plenty of reason to agree that thinking, feeling and doing things differently makes life far more rewarding and rich than feeling helpless, fatigued and sore. Some proponents of purely biomedical interventions argue that if only the “source of the nociception” was found, the nerve “zapped” or anaesthetised, then all this psychosocial claptrap could be safely ignored because people “return to normal”. I think this belief shows ignorance and perhaps even arrogance because people process and attribute meaning to everything that happens to them.
I originally entitled this post as “psychological” approaches for people with fibromyalgia, but I’ve changed it after reflecting that we actually do not know which of the various parts of non-drug therapy are most useful for people. There are some core components in self-management approaches, these include explanations (or reconceptualising pain), graded return to life’s activities or occupations, exercise (again, graded), and often some work around thoughts/beliefs/emotions that might get in the way of returning to activities, and some practical problem-solving and goal-setting to help people work out how they’re going to “get on with it”.
While the assumptions are cognitive behavioural in origin – that is, people can take control of what is happening around them, and respond differently even if the pain doesn’t change – most of what happens involves doing things differently in order to bring more of what the person values back into their life, rather than having life dominated by pain.
I’ve written before about ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and I find it quite appealing. The ACT approach involves developing skills to be fully present, work towards living a life aligned with your personal values, being mindful of what is (rather than worry about what was, or what might be), being committed to taking action even if the process isn’t always happy-happy, joy-joy. I like it, and in my research it seems to fit quite nicely with what people naturally do. In ACT the coping strategies used don’t fall into “good” or “bad” dichotomies, instead they’re evaluated according to how well they’re working in light of each individual’s values. I like the respectful attitude towards people’s personal values and beliefs, and the flexibility of using “what works” and experiential therapy rather than sitting in a clinic room talking.
The question is whether ACT is any better or worse than any other psychological treatment – such as “traditional” cognitive behavioural therapy.
The jury is out. Frankly I am not sure it’s as much about the particular model or type of therapy used as it is about the way in which it’s introduced to the person. There are CBT clinicians who seem to be able to come alongside a person, help them work out for themselves whether their thinking is helpful or not, and help them shift their perspective nicely. Then there are CBT clinicians who leave people feeling as if they have “stinking thinking” or “maladaptive thoughts”, who “have” to change their way of life, who “must” do therapy “homework” – and blame the patient for failing to do “homework” or being “noncompliant”. I can, of course, say the same about ACT clinicians and indeed any other form of clinician!
Where does this leave us?
Well, I’m not sure that much has changed in the 20 or so years I’ve been working in this field. What has happened is stronger evidence to show that thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviour are linked, and directly influence our experience of pain. People still need to understand, or make sense, of what’s happening to them, get more active and have more of what they want in their lives rather than feeling controlled by pain.
How we achieve this probably depends as much on the person who has pain as the clinician.
We also know that fruitlessly seeking pain reduction leads to demoralisation, frustration and increasing disability.
While I’ve put “fibromyalgia” as the type of chronic pain two of the papers I’ve cited refer to, really I’m not convinced that the problems people experience from their pain differs terribly much depending on the diagnosis. The effect of pain that goes on is the same – a diminishing sense of self identity, increased sense of helplessness and overall difficulty doing and being well. Addressing these effects is far more worthwhile in people’s lives than trying to control, avoid or abolish pain – because some pains just don’t go away.
Luciano, J., Guallar, J., Aguado, J., López-del-Hoyo, Y., Olivan, B., Magallón, R., Alda, M., Serrano-Blanco, A., Gili, M., & Garcia-Campayo, J. (2014). Effectiveness of group acceptance and commitment therapy for fibromyalgia: A 6-month randomized controlled trial (EFFIGACT study) PAIN®, 155 (4), 693-702 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2013.12.029
BERNARDY, K., FUBER, N., KOLLNER, V., & HAUSER, W. (2010). Efficacy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies in Fibromyalgia Syndrome — A Systematic Review and Metaanalysis of Randomized Controlled Trials The Journal of Rheumatology, 37 (10), 1991-2005 DOI: 10.3899/jrheum.100104
Williams ACDC,, Eccleston C,, & Morley S (2012). Psychological therapies for the management of chronic pain (excluding headache)in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (11) DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD007407.pub3
NB: I have amended the first paragraph because it may have been viewed as unnecessarily pejorative towards a single type of clinician. The truth is, I point the finger at any clinician from any background or discipline if I think what is being done is harmful, illogical or maintains distress and disability, including my original profession of occupational therapy. I was being simplistic to suggest a single profession is at fault. It’s not the profession per se, it’s the attitude that I strongly object to. To those who were upset by my original wording, here’s an invitation: if you’re able to demonstrate HOW you integrate biopsychosocial approaches in your practice, I’ll publish it. That’s the beauty of dialogue, and particularly social media.