For years there has been a general wisdom that people with chronic pain who gradually stop doing things “must” be deconditioned. That is, they must lose fitness, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal, and this is often used to explain low activity levels, high disability and the prescription of graded exercise.
While this explanation makes sense (remember what happens to limbs when they’re in plaster for six weeks? all skinny and wasted?) – it doesn’t inevitably hold, in my experience. I vividly recall a person who routinely swam 20 lengths of an Olympic pool in very fast time every day, yet could not, in his estimation, return to any kind of work, and who did not sit – for an entire three week programme. It’s always seemed a bit odd to me that even though people report they can’t do many everyday activities, they can complete a rigorous gym programme.
So, skeptical me was very pleased to see another paper by the wonderful Nicole Andrews, occupational therapist and PhD, and her colleagues Jenny Strong and Pamela Meredith. This one is about approach to activity engagement, certain aspects of physical function and pain duration and was published in Clinical Journal of Pain in January this year (reference at the bottom of the page). It’s an important paper because it challenges some of the assumptions often made about activity levels and “fitness”, as well as the use of an operant conditioning model for pacing – pacing involving working to a set quota, rather than letting pain be the guide. The concept of pacing has been woven into most pain management programmes since the early days of Fordyce, but more recently has been criticised for lacking a clear definition, and for very little in the way of empirical support as a stand-alone treatment.
In this study, Andrews and colleagues examined the relationship between certain activities and a “habitual” approach to activity engagement, and pain duration. This is a different approach to studying activity and over- or under- activity in that it examines specific activities rather than using a global measure of disability – and this is important because the people we work with do specific activities (or occupations as I’d call them) and it will be more important to be able to predict the types of activities people do, or not do, rather than simply using a general guide.
Andrews and colleagues used a tool I particularly like called the Pain and Activity Relations Questionnaire (McCracken & Samuel, 2007) – this is a 21-item measure that looks at how people approach their activities. It has three subscales – avoidance, confronting, and pacing. Confronting measures “over”activity, while the other two are self explanatory. They also used the Oswestry Disability Index, an old standard in measuring physical functioning.
The analysis was really interesting, and well-described for those who want to dig deeper into how this team found their results. I’ll cut to the chase and simply point out that they used the items rather than the overall score of the ODI, which allows for a more fine-grained analysis of the kinds of activities individuals engaged in, and how they approached those activities. This is the stuff occupational therapists and physiotherapists really want to get their teeth into!
So, what did they find?
Firstly, individuals who reported high levels of avoidance and low over-activity also reported significant restriction in personal care tasks, compared with those people who reported low levels of both avoidance and activity. There was no relationship between this item and pain duration, but there was a relationship between pain intensity and interference.
Lifting tolerance, however, was affected by pain duration and pain intensity rather than avoidance patterns. Walking tolerance wasn’t affected by approach to activity, or pain duration, but age and pain intensity were important factors. Sitting tolerance was not related to approach to activity, and only pain intensity was a contributor rather than pain duration. Finally, standing was also not associated with approach to activity and was only related to pain intensity.
Sleep was influenced by approach to activity engagement – and with pain duration. This means people with pain for one year and who were inclined to be “over” active and not avoidant, and those who were highly avoidant and highly “over”active were more likely to report problems with sleep than those with low avoidance and low “over” activity. (BTW I put the “over” in quotes because it could also be called “confronting” or “pushing” or “doing” – I think it’s weird term not yet well-defined). The group most likely to report poor sleep were those reporting high “over”activity and low avoidance who reported sleep problems 9.23 times more than those reporting low “over”activity and low avoidance. Once again, pain severity was the only other variable influencing reporting.
Sex life was not associated with approach to activity engagement, nor to pain duration. Social life, however, was associated with approach to activity engagement with those reporting high avoidance and “over”activity reporting more restrictions than those with low levels of both, along with similar results for those reporting high avoidance and low “over”activity – again, pain duration wasn’t associated, but pain intensity was.
Finally, travel was more likely to be reported a problem by all those compared with the low avoidance, low “over”activity group, with the high avoidance, low “over” activity group most likely to report problems.
What does all this mean?
Bearing in mind that the population from whom these participants were taken were attending a tertiary pain management centre programme, and that this is self-report, the findings from this study are really very exciting. As the authors point out, when the ODI is mapped on to the ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health) the instrument covers sleep (body function), personal care, lifting, walking, sitting and standing (activity limitations), and social life and travel (participation restrictions). Activity limitations can also be divided into two domains – mobility and daily activities (basic and instrumental activities of daily life) – walking, standing and sitting are therefore “mobility”, while personal care and lifting are “daily activities”.
These findings show that mobility activities were not associated with an individual’s approach to activity engagement – they differ from the other items in that they’re performance skills, that is, they make up other activities can’t be reduced to a smaller component. The authors suggest that the responses to these items in this study may reflect the individual’s perceived capability to engage in daily activities, as opposed to their actual physical performance to engage in these tasks.
I think this means it’s important to ask about what people do in daily life, rather than rely simply on reported levels of walking or sitting. Tie self report into activities – for example, sitting tolerance might be best described in terms of whether a person can sit to watch a whole TV programme, or whether they need to get up during the ad breaks. It’s important to note the relationship between approach to activity and poor sleep – sleep being one of those aspects of living with pain that people most want addressed. Perhaps by moderating the approach to activity we might be able to help people develop more effective sleep patterns. It also seems to me that we need to tie outcomes from pain management to real life activities in which an individual wants to participate – rather than a more “objective” measure such as the six minute walk test – which might satisfy our urge to measure things in a nice orderly way, but might not be relevant to an individual’s life.
Finally, this study shows that overactivity and avoidance patterns are not inevitably associated with reduced capacity over time. I think this is a “received wisdom” that needs to be unpackaged
Andrews, N. E., Strong, J., & Meredith, P. J. (2016). The relationship between approach to activity engagement, specific aspects of physical function, and pain duration in chronic pain. Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(1), 20-31
McCracken LM, Samuel VM. The role of avoidance, pacing, and other activity patterns in chronic pain. Pain. 2007;130:119–125.