Ambiguity and uncertainty

Humans vary in how comfortable we are with uncertainty or ambiguity: Tolerance of ambiguity is a construct discussed in cognitive and experimental research literature, and refers to the willingness to prefer black and white situations, where “there is an aversive reaction to ambiguous situations because the lack of information makes it difficult to assess risk and correctly make a decision. These situations are perceived as a threat and source of discomfort. Reactions to the perceived threat are stress, avoidance, delay, suppression, or denial” (Furnham & Marks, 2013, p. 718).  Tolerance to uncertainty is often discussed in relation to response to stress and emotions associated with being in an ambiguous situation, or it may refer to a future-oriented trait where an individual is responding to an ambiguous situation in the present. Suffice to say, for some individuals the need to be certain and clear means they find it very difficult to be in situations where multiple outcomes are possible and where information is messy. As a result, they find ways to counter the unease, ranging from avoiding making a decision to authoritatively dictating what “should” be done (or not done).

How does this affect us in a clinical setting? Well, both parties in this setting can have varying degrees of comfort with ambiguity.

Our clients may find it difficult to deal with not knowing their diagnosis, the cause of their painful experience, the time-frame of its resolution, and managing the myriad uncertainties that occur when routines are disrupted by the unexpected. For example, workers from the UK were interviewed about their unemployment as a result of low back pain. Uncertainty (both physical and financial) was given as one of the major themes from interviews of their experience of unemployment (Patel, Greasley, Watson, 2007).  Annika Lillrank, in a study from 2003, found that resolving diagnostic uncertainty was a critical point in the trajectory of those living with low back pain (Lillrank, 2003).

But it’s not just clients who find it hard to deal with uncertainty – clinicians do too. Slade, Molloy and Keating (2011) found that physiotherapists believe patients want a clear diagnosis but feel challenged when they’re faced with diagnostic uncertainty. What then happens is a temptation to be critical of the patients if they fail to improve, to seek support from other more senior colleagues, and end up feeling unprepared by their training to deal with this common situation. The response to uncertainty, at least in this study, was for clinicians to “educate” care-seekers about their injury/diagnosis despite diagnostic uncertainty (my italics), and a strong desire to see rapid improvements, and tend to attribute lack of progress to the client when either the client doesn’t want “education” or fails to improve (Slade, Molloy & Keating, 2003).

Physiotherapists are not alone in this tendency: There is a large body of literature discussing so-called “medically unexplained diseases” which, naturally, include chronic pain disorders. For example Bekkelund and Salvesen (2006) found that more referrals were made to neurologists when the clinician felt uncertain about a diagnosis of migraine. GP’s, in a study by Rosser (1996) were more likely to refer to specialists in part because they were uncertain – while specialists, dealing as they do with a narrower range of symptoms and body systems, deal with less diagnostic uncertainty. Surprisingly, despite the difference in degree of uncertainty, GP’s order fewer tests and procedures yet often produce identical outcomes!

How do we manage uncertainty and ambiguity?

Some of us will want to apply subtypes, groupings, algorithms – means of controlling the degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in our clinical practice. Some of the findings from various tests (eg palpation or tender point examination) are used as reasons for following a certain clinical rule of thumb. In physiotherapy, medicine and to a certain extent my own field of occupational therapy, there is a tendency to “see nails because all I have is a hammer” in an attempt to fit a client into a certain clinical rule or process. We see endless publications identifying “subtypes” and various ways to cut down the uncertainty within our field, particularly with respect to low back pain where we really are dealing with uncertainty.

Some of these subgroupings may appear effective – I remember the enthusiasm for leg length discrepancies, muscle “imbalance”, and more recently neutral spine and core stability – because for some people these approaches were helpful! Over time, the enthusiasm has waned.

Others of us apply what we could call an eclectic approach – a bit of this, a bit of that, something I like to do, something that I just learned – and yes, even some of these approaches seem to work.

My concern is twofold. (1) What is the clinical reasoning behind adopting either a rule-governed algorithm or subtyping approach or an eclectic approach? Why use X instead of Y? And are we reasoning after the fact to justify our approach? (2) What do we do if it doesn’t work? Where does that leave us? As Slade, Molloy & Keating (2003), do we begin blaming the patient when our hammer fails to find a nail?

I’ve long advocated working to generate multiple hypotheses to explain how and why a person is presenting in this way at this time. It’s a case formulation approach where, collaborating with the person and informed by broad assessment across multiple domains that are known to be associated with pain, a set of possible explanations (hypotheses) are generated. Then we systematically test these either through further clinical assessment, or by virtue of providing an intervention and carefully monitoring the outcome. This approach doesn’t resolve uncertainty – but it does allow for some time to de-bias our clinical reasoning, it involves the client in sorting out what might be going on, it means we have more than one way to approach the problem (the one the client identifies, not just our own!), and it means we have some way of holding all this ambiguous and uncertain information in place so we can see what’s going on. I know case formulations are imperfect, and they don’t solve anything in themselves (see Delle-Vergini & Day (2016) for a recent review of case formulation in forensic practice – not too different from ordinary clinical practice in musculoskeletal management IMHO) . What they do is provide a systematic process to follow that can incorporate uncertainty without needing a clinician to jump to conclusions.

I’d love your thoughts on managing uncertainty as a clinician in your daily practice. How do you deal with it? Is there room for uncertainty and ambiguity? What would happen if we could sit with this uncertainty without jumping in to treat for just a little longer? Could mindfulness be useful? What if you’re someone who experiences a great deal of empathy for people who distressed – can you sit with not knowing while in the presence of someone who is hurting?


Bekkelund, S., & Salvesen, R. (2006). Is uncertain diagnosis a more frequent reason for referring migraine patients to neurologist than other headache syndromes? European Journal of Neurology, 13(12), 1370-1373. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-1331.2006.01523.x
Delle-Vergini, V., & Day, A. (2016). Case formulation in forensic practice: Challenges and opportunities. The Journal of Forensic Practice, 18(3), null. doi:doi:10.1108/JFP-01-2016-0005
Furnham, A., & Marks, J. (2013). Tolerance of ambiguity: A review of the recent literature. Psychology, Vol.04No.09, 12. doi:10.4236/psych.2013.49102
Lillrank, A. (2003). Back pain and the resolution of diagnostic uncertainty in illness narratives. Social Science & Medicine, 57(6), 1045-1054. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0277-9536%2802%2900479-3
Patel, S., Greasley, K., Watson, P. J. (2007). Barriers to rehabilitation and return to work for unemployed chronic pain patients: A qualitative study. European Journal of Pain: Ejp, 11(8), 831-840.
Rosser, W. W. (1996). Approach to diagnosis by primary care clinicians and specialists: Is there a difference? Journal of Family Practice, 42(2), 139-144.
Slade, S. C., Molloy, E., & Keating, J. L. (2012). The dilemma of diagnostic uncertainty when treating people with chronic low back pain: A qualitative study. Clinical Rehabilitation, 26(6), 558-569. doi:10.1177/0269215511420179

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