End-of-year musings

It’s my last post for the year. It has been an extraordinary year, lots of surprises, shocks and enough excitement for anyone! I’m not even going to start on the political changes, here in NZ we’ve had yet another major earthquake, excitement as ACC (our national accident insurer) sets up new pain service contracts (with a LOT of people who haven’t been involved in pain management before… there’s an experiment in the making!), and continuing road cone carnage on the streets of Christchurch.

On the pain news front, I can’t think of any incredibly ground-breaking news – although one medic advised that “Virtually all cases of low back pain can now be diagnosed definitively by criterion standard methods as to source and cause.” That same medic also argued that a paper by Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder (2016) on non-specific low back pain, published in The Lancet, represented “the views of non-evidence-based troglodytes who (a) have apparently not read any scientific papers since 1966, and (b) have vested interests in “managing” non-diagnosed patients so their practices remain busy and they reinforce each other’s views that the burden of low back pain cannot be eased.” I’ll leave the critiquing of that view to those with more time and energy than I have!

It’s also been a year in which various commentators have critiqued the “biopsychosocial model” as it’s applied in musculoskeletal pain.  Some have pointed out that this is an unscientific model, it’s not a theory that can be tested and therefore can’t point to “truth” or whatever approximation we can currently identify. Others have argued that by adopting this framework, practitioners must either be versed in “life, the universe and everything” – or perhaps become exactly what advocates of this approach decry: reductionists. I’m not sure I follow this argument, but those that raise it are intelligent, articulate and far more thoughtful than those who believe that Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder are “troglodytes” or have “vested interests”.

I continue to hold that a biopsychosocial perspective explains more, and is of practical use when we consider the various factors that might influence why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be done to reduce their distress and disability. Here’s my take.

Biopsychosocial model

When we look into the original biopsychosocial model, we need to understand the context in which Engel first developed it. He was a psychiatrist, and at the time psychiatry was under threat from psychologists in particular, who were strongly advocating that many mental illnesses were actually “problems of living”. Things like alcohol abuse, forms of mood disorder, relationship issues and the like were seen as disorders influenced by learning and environment rather than biology. Psychiatrists were perhaps on the way to being sidelined from the very area in which they claim expertise. Engel, influenced by general systems theory and cybernetics, proposed a way for psychiatrists to remain relevant: look at the person as part of a wider system in which each element in the system could influence and be influenced by the next. Engel used this approach as a way to frame conversations with the patients he saw – attempting to understand how and why they were seeking help, and especially, attempting to understand the person and his or her priorities. I think that’s admirable.

How the model has evolved since then is an interesting tale. I first encountered the model during my occupational therapy training, where it was a foundation to viewing people-in-context. It was presented as a bit old hat (I started training in 1979), and was replaced in my profession by Gary Kielhofner’s Model of Human Occupation. This model similarly draws on general systems theory, and argues for the relevance of volition and habits as well as capacity from a biological/performance stance to undertake occupation and of course, contexts such as environment which includes the social environment. MOHO incorporates much of what we consider to be biopsychosocial – in fact, occupational therapy as a profession is based on the idea that people actively engage in purposeful and meaningful activities (occupations) that are formed out of the affordances available to them by virtue of biology, psychology and social elements within an environmental context.

So what?

For a model, or theory, to have value it needs to offer something that existing models or theories don’t. It needs to be more parsimonious (make fewer assumptions), explain more (be more consilient), hold together with existing knowledge (cohere), and predict more (Thagard, 1978).

For a clinician, a theory must also be useful in terms of explaining why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and directing what can be done to reduce distress and disability. Why these questions? Because people actively make decisions to seek treatment. They evaluate their experience in light of their past experiences, prevailing community beliefs about the trajectory of their problem, family influences, and yes, legislative influences. These are possibly more important than the biology of their problem – because we’re not going to treat someone who doesn’t believe they have a problem!

As clinicians I think we need to ponder exactly what we consider to be “treatment”.

When my fracture is reduced and immobilised, that is “treatment” – but it’s not actually ‘healing’ my bones, it’s actually up to my body to do the work. What immobilisation does is create an environment in which my body can heal itself. But the problem of a broken bone is not “treated” just by immobilisation. Treatment has to include the rest of my recovery – and involve prevention strategies too. My recovery will need to include restoring function. And some of that restoration will be by guiding me through various movements that increase tissue tolerance as well as my confidence that my limb will support me. My recovery also has to include me understanding and learning from my experience – will I jump off that cliff again? Will I leave the toys all over the floor again? Will I walk on a slippery path again?

I think clinicians simply create an environment in which people can recover. And we need to go beyond measuring range of movement or strength to establish that recovery has occurred. Recovery isn’t just about returning to “normal” whatever that is. It’s about moving beyond this interruption and into new possibilities and new challenges. It’s really about being able to be who we really are. While that’s primarily the person’s own responsibility, our job as clinicians is to create an environment where it’s possible. While a biopsychosocial model/theory/framework makes life complex, using this approach allows us to be aware of more of the factors relevant to recovery and growth than simply looking at people as if they’re bits of meat, bone, and juice.

In the new year

I’ve been blogging since 2007. In that time I’ve written over a thousand posts all on the topic of pain. Almost all of my posts are on the theme of how we can remember that we are working with people. Other human beings who have their own thoughts, beliefs and priorities. Humans who make sense of their situation as best they can. People who, like us, hold cognitive biases, and feel emotions, and get stuck, and hold values. My real focus is on how we can integrate these things into clinical reasoning – because until we do, we’re ignoring what matters most to the people we seek to serve.


Engel, G. L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196(4286), 129-136. doi:10.1126/science.847460

Maher, C., Underwood, M., & Buchbinder, R. (2016). Non-specific low back pain.  The Lancet. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30970-9

Thagard, P. R. (1978). The best explanation: Criteria for theory choice. The Journal of Philosophy, 75(2), 76-92.


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