The gap in managing pain


If you’ve read my blog for any period of time you’ll know that I like practical research, and research that helps clinicians do what they do with humanity, compassion and evidence. One really enormous gap in the field is rarely mentioned: how do clinicians pull their assessment findings together and use them for clinical reasoning? Especially if you’re part of an interprofessional team (or work in a biopsychosocial framework). The silence in the pain literature is deafening!

There are any number of articles on what can be included in an initial assessment, most of them based on the idea that if factor X is an important predictor, it oughta be assessed. So we have a proliferation of assessments across (mainly) the biopsychological spectrum, with a teeny tiny bit of social (family relationships) thrown in, if you’re lucky. There are numerous papers proposing treatments for aspects of pain – anything from medications, to movement treatments, to cognitive treatments (yes, pain education), and behavioural treatments – but after reading them it almost feels like authors think anyone with pain that’s going on longer than we’d hope “should” have That Treatment, and then of course the person will be just fine.

Except that – there are just as many people with persistent pain today as there were 20 years ago, perhaps more (given the global burden of disease shows that low back pain is The Most Common problem associated with years lived with disability). In other words, all our treatments across all our specialties don’t seem to be having the impact that the research papers suggest they ought to. What gives?

I think it’s time to take a leaf from some of the better-conducted pharmacological studies. Yes, I said that! What I mean is that given our treatments especially for low back pain seem to have broadly the same or similar effects, maybe we need to look beyond the grouped analyses where individual differences are lost within the grouped data, and head to some of the sub-analyses proposed and used by Moore, Derry, Eccleston & Kalso (2013). In this paper, they advocate using responder analysis – who, exactly, gets a good result?

At the same time, I think we need to get much better at assembling, integrating and using the multitude of assessments people complete for us when we start treating them. Several points here: yes, we all carry out assessment but how well do we put them together to “tell the story” or generate a set of hypotheses to explain the crucial questions:

Why is this person presenting in this way at this time? And what can be done to reduce distress and disability?

I think case formulations may take us a step towards better use of our assessments, better clinical reasoning, better teamwork, and, most of all, better collaboration with the person we hope to help.

Case formulations are not new in psychology. They’re really a cornerstone of clinical psychological reasoning – assembling the information gathered during assessment into some sort of explanatory framework that will help the therapist generate possibly hypotheses about predisposing factors, what precipitated the problem, what perpetuates the problem, and any protective factors. Psychologists are no less prone to arguing about whether this approach works than anyone else – except they do some cool studies looking at whether they’re consistent when generating their formulations, and sadly, formulations are not super-consistent with each other (Ridley, Jeffrey & Robertson, 2017).

BUT here’s why I think it might be a useful approach, especially for people with complex problems associated with their pain:

  1. Case formulations slow our clinical reasoning down. “Huh?” you say, “Why would that be good?” Well because rapid clinical judgements on the basis of incomplete information tend to lead us towards some important cognitive biases – anchoring on the first possible idea, discounting information that doesn’t fit with that idea, we notice weird stuff more than the commonplace, we fill in information based on stereotypes, generalities and past histories, and we don’t shift from our first conclusion very easily. By taking time to assemble our information, we can delay drawing a conclusion until we have more information.
  2. By completing a consistent set of assessments (instead of choosing an ad hoc set based on “the subjective”) we reduce the tendency to look for confirmation of our initial hunch. I know this isn’t usual practice in some professions because that “subjective” history is used to guide assessments which are then used to determine a diagnosis – but the risk is that we’ll look for assessments that confirm our suspicions, meanwhile being blinded to possible alternative explanations (or hypotheses or diagnoses).
  3. Working together with the expert on their own situation (ie the person seeking help!) we build collaboration, a shared understanding of the person’s situation, and we can develop an effective working relationship without any hint of “one-up, one-down” that I can see appeals to “experts” who like to point out the “problems” with, for example, posture, gait, motor control and so on – all which may have little to do with the patient’s pain, and a whole lot more to do with creating a “listen to me because I Know Things” situation.
  4. Other team members can contribute their assessments, creating a common understanding of the various factors associated with the person’s situation. Common goals can be developed, common language about what might be going on, common treatment aims and enhanced understanding of what each profession contributes can happen when a formulation includes all the wonderful information collected across the team.
  5. If one of the treatments doesn’t work (ie the hypothesis doesn’t hold up to testing) there are other options to draw on – we’re not stuck within our own clinical repertoire, we can think across disciplines and across individual clinical models and become far more confident about knowing when to refer on, and how we can support our colleagues.

But, you know, I looked in the pain journals, searched far and wide – and I found few examples of case formulation for persistent pain. The best paper I’ve found so far is from a textbook – so not readily accessible. It’s Linton & Nicholas (2008) “After assessment, then what? Integrating findings for successful case formulation and treatment tailoring”. Where is the rest of the research?!!

Linton, S. J., & Nicholas, M. K. (2008). After assessment, then what? Integrating findings for successful case formulation and treatment tailoring. Clinical Pain Management Second Edition: Practice and Procedures, 4, 1095.

Moore, A., Derry, S., Eccleston, C., & Kalso, E. (2013). Expect analgesic failure; pursue analgesic success. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online), 346.

Ridley, C. R., Jeffrey, C. E. and Roberson, R. B. (2017), Case Mis-Conceptualization in Psychological Treatment: An Enduring Clinical Problem. J. Clin. Psychol., 73: 359–375. doi:10.1002/jclp.22354

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2 comments

  1. “One really enormous gap in the field is rarely mentioned: how do clinicians pull their assessment findings together and use them for clinical reasoning? Especially if you’re part of an interprofessional team (or work in a biopsychosocial framework).”

    Bronnie, might I be so bold as to suggest that the large gap you have correctly identified can be directly attributed to the frames through which we have been viewing people experiencing chronic pain?

    In my opinion, neither the logical application of the biomedical model nor resorting to the so-called biopsychosocial approach have allowed us to come up with case formulations that might be applicable and useful in real world situations.

    Quo vadis?

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