I think the subject of this post is the singularly most important yet neglected topic in chronic pain research today. When is it time to say “All this looking at pain cure, or reducing your pain isn’t working, it’s time to accept that pain is going to part of your life.” It’s difficult for so many reasons whether you’re the person experiencing the pain, or the clinician trying to help. It’s also incredibly important for everyone including our community.
Cures for pain that persists are not easily found. One possibility is that the underlying disease or dysfunction has not yet been treated – pain in this case is the experience we have when there’s an unresolved threat to body tissues. Find the source of the problem, treat it, and voila! No pain.
Another possibility is that a new or groovy treatment has been developed – something extraordinary, or something that’s being applied to a different problem or something that’s emerging from the experimental phase to clinical practice. This means clinicians need to have heard about it, maybe will have had to think hard about their clinical reasoning, have developed skills to apply it, and be ready to talk about it with the person they’re treating.
In the case of much chronic pain, pharmacological approaches simply do not work. Machado and colleagues (2009), in a large meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomised trials, found 76 eligible trials reporting on 34 treatments. Fifty percent of the treatments had statistically significant effects, but for most the effects were small or moderate … the analgesic effects of many treatments for non-specific low back pain are small”, while Machado, Maher and colleagues found that paracetamol was “ineffective” for reducing pain intensity or improving quality of life for people with low back pain, and although there was a statistically significant result for paracetamol on osteoarthritis pain (hip or knee), this was not clinically important (Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro, Lin, et al_2015). Clifford Woolf said “most existing analgesics for persistent pain are relatively ineffective… the number of patients who are needed to be treated to achieve 50% reduction in neuropathic pain in one patient is more than four – a high cost for the three unsuccessfully treated patients and their physicians” (Woolf, 2010).
Woolf’s sentence ends with an important statement: A high cost for the three unsuccessfully treated patients and their physicians. I have emphasised the final three words, because this might be the most difficult to process. It’s hard for clinicians to say “I can’t reduce your pain”, and “there isn’t a cure”. It’s incredibly hard. And it’s perhaps because it’s so hard that I’ve found very little published research looking at the way clinicians go about telling people their pain is likely to be ongoing. It’s like a taboo – let’s not talk about it, let’s pretend it doesn’t happen, after all it doesn’t happen often. Really?
Amongst allied health (I can’t bear to use the word “non-medical”), and in particular, physiotherapists, there continues to be a push to address pain intensity and (ultimately) to cure pain. Innovative treatments such as mirror therapy, graded motor imagery, therapeutic pain neuroscience (we used to call it psycho-education in the 1980’s when I first started working in this area), reducing the threat value of the experience have all come into their own over the past 15 years or so. Even long-standing pain problems apparently respond to these approaches – people cured! Who wouldn’t be keen to try them?
Most of these latter treatments are based on the idea that our neurology is plastic; that is, it can change as we change input and thoughts/beliefs about what’s going on. Unfortunately, the systematic reviews of trials, and at least one “real world” trial of graded motor imagery haven’t shown effects as great as promised from the early research (eg Johnson, Hall, Barnett, Draper, Derbyshire et al, 2012). There are sure to be people who can point to amazing outcomes in the people they treat. I’m certain that it’s not just the “treatment” but an awful lot to do with the person delivering the treatment – and the treatment context – that might make a difference to outcomes.
But where this all leads me to is who makes the decision to stop chasing pain reduction and pain cure? When does it happen? What’s the process? And what if we treatment providers are actually prolonging disability out of the goodness of our hearts to find a cure?
Let me unpack this a little.
In my research, several important factors led to people deciding to begin flexibly persisting (and getting on with life as it is, not as it was, or might be).
- The first was knowing the diagnosis and that it would not be completely cured but could be managed.
- The second, that hurting didn’t mean harm (pain is just pain, not a sign of ongoing damage).
- The third, that there was something important the person wanted or needed to do to be themselves.
There were other things as well, like having a clinician who would stand by the person even if the person didn’t “do as the Doctor ordered”, and developing their own personalised model or explanation for their pain as it fluctuated from day-to-day. BUT the single most important factor was knowing that the problem needed to be managed because there was no cure. Knowing this meant that energy used chasing a cure was redirected towards learning to live well and be the person they were, rather than a patient or being dominated by pain.
Unfortunately, I think that many clinicians confuse the idea of managing pain with that of resignation to a lesser life. Even the wonderful Lorimer Moseley and crew wrote recently that “CBT literature seemed to focus on this idea of ‘pain is now unavoidable so it is now time to learn how to cope with it.’ He goes on to argue that because a CBT approach focuses on thoughts and beliefs (much like Explain Pain does), it’s not incompatible with the idea that the plastic brain can learn to reduce the threat value even further to ultimately “helping them live well with less pain, or perhaps without any pain at all.”
Here’s my concern: Right now there are many people living with chronic pain who have lost their sense of hope. They’ve pursued pain cure after pain cure, and in doing so, they’ve lost normal routines and habits, lost their usual occupations (activities), stopped being around people, stopped working, and have suffered in the true sense of the word – they’ve lost their sense of self. While I applaud the efforts of researchers like Moseley and colleagues, and I think we must continue to seek treatments to reverse the neurobiological underpinnings of pain, at the same time I think we need to look at the psychological and social aspects of our attitudes and expectations towards experiencing pain. And we must think of the negative effects of our emotional response to seeing another person who is experiencing pain.
Is it so terrible to experience pain every day? Speaking as one who does – despite my knowledge of neuroplasticity – my pain doesn’t represent a threat. It’s just an experience. It’s there. I notice it, I can feel it. And the participants in my research similarly acknowledged pain as present – but it didn’t have the emotional primacy that pain can represent before it is explained. In fact, some of the participants said they’d learned important things because they’d had pain. A lot like having a mood disorder (that must be managed), or diabetes (that must be managed), or heart disease (that must be managed), or respiratory disease (that must be managed), perhaps it’s OK to have pain – that must be managed. Because until our research has advanced a LOT further than it has, there are an awful lot of people living with chronic pain, and who will continue to live with chronic pain. And even more sadly, there are an awful lot of people who don’t even get the opportunity to know that it’s possible to live well despite experiencing chronic pain because we (as part of society) still don’t accept that pain can be present without it being a threat.
Sometimes I wonder at our (clinicians and researchers) blind spot. We just don’t seem to be ready to accept persisting pain as something that can be lived with. Is it time to look at our own discomfort with allowing pain to be part of life?
Bowering, K. J., O’Connell, N. E., Tabor, A., Catley, M. J., Leake, H. B., Moseley, G. L., & Stanton, T. R. (2013). The effects of graded motor imagery and its components on chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Pain, 14(1), 3-13.
Cossins, L., Okell, R. W., Cameron, H., Simpson, B., Poole, H. M., & Goebel, A. (2013). Treatment of complex regional pain syndrome in adults: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials published from June 2000 to February 2012. European Journal of Pain, 17(2), 158-173.
Johnson, S., Hall, J., Barnett, S., Draper, M., Derbyshire, G., Haynes, L., . . . Goebel, A. (2012). Using graded motor imagery for complex regional pain syndrome in clinical practice: failure to improve pain. European Journal of Pain, 16(4), 550-561.
Machado, LAC, Kamper, SJ, Herbert, RD, Maher, CG, & McAuley, JH. (2009). Analgesic effects of treatments for non-specific low back pain: a meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomized trials. Rheumatology, 48(5), 520-527.
Machado, Gustavo C, Maher, Chris G, Ferreira, Paulo H, Pinheiro, Marina B, Lin, Chung-Wei Christine, Day, Richard O, . . . Ferreira, Manuela L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials (Vol. 350).
Woolf, Clifford J. (2010). Overcoming obstacles to developing new analgesics. Nature Medical, 16(11), 1241-1247. doi: doi:10.1038/nm.2230