Clinical reasoning and why models of low back pain need to be integrated


Clinical reasoning has been defined as “the process by which a therapist interacts with a patient, collecting information, generating and testing hypotheses, and determining optimal diagnosis and treatment based on the information obtained.” (thanks to https://www.physio-pedia.com/Clinical_Reasoning#cite_note-Higgs-1). The model or lens through which we do these processes naturally has a major influence on our relationship with the person, the information we think is relevant, the hypotheses we develop, and ultimately the problems we identify and how we treat them. No arguments so far, yes?

So when we come to thinking about pain, particularly where a “diagnosis” can’t be readily established – or where the treatment doesn’t directly address a proposed causal factor – clinical reasoning should be led by some sort of model, but how explicit is our model, really? And, what’s more, how well does the research support our model, and the relationships between variables?

I’m thinking about my approach as an occupational therapist where my interest in assessment is to identify why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining their current predicament; and my aim is to identify what can be done to reduce distress and disability, while promoting participation in daily occupations (activities, things that need to be done or the person wants to do). For many years now I’ve used a cognitive behavioural model first developed by Dr Tim Sharp who has now moved into Positive Psychology. His reformulation of the cognitive behavioural model works from the “experience” of pain through to responses to that experience, but incorporates some of the cyclical interactions between constructs. The model doesn’t include inputs to the “experience” component from the nociceptive system – but it could.

Many other models exist. Some of them are quite recent – the STarT Back Tool, for example, provides a very simplified screening approach to low back pain that some people have identified as a clinical reasoning model. Another is by Tousignant-Laflamme, Martel, Joshi & Cook (2017), and is a model aimed at pulling all the various approaches together – and does so with a beautifully-coloured diagram.

But.

You knew there would be one! What I think these two models omit is to generate some relationships between the constructs, particularly the psychological ones. You see, while it’s a cyclical interaction, there are some relationships that we can identify.  And over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about some of the known associations, just to begin to build a picture of the relationships we can assess before we begin generating hypotheses.

For example, we know that the nervous system, and in particular our mind/brain, is never inactive and is therefore never a completely blank slate just waiting for information to come into it, but we also know there are relationships between the intensity/salience/novelty of a stimulus that attract attention, and that this competes with whatever cognitive set we have operating at the time (Legrain, Van Damme, Eccleston, Davis, Seminowicz & Crombez, 2009). So one relationship we need to assess is current contexts (and there are always many), and the times when a person is more or less aware of their pain.

Now, what increases the salience of a stimulus? For humans it’s all about meaning. We attribute meaning to even random patterns (ever seen dragons and horses in the clouds?!), so it’s unsurprising that as we experience something (or watch someone else experiencing something) we make meaning of it. And we generate meanings by relating concepts to other concepts – for a really good introduction to a very geeky subject, head here to read about relational frame theory. Relational frame theory is used to explain how we generate language and meanings by relating events with one another (The Bronnie translation! – for an easier version go here). Wicksell and Vowles (2015) describe this, and I’m going to quote it in full:

As described by relational frame theory, the theoretical framework underlying ACT, stimulus functions are continuously acquired via direct experiences, but also through their relations with other stimuli [5]. This implies that a behavioral response is not due to just one stimuli but rather the relational network of stimuli. Pain as an interoceptive stimulus is associated with a large number of other stimuli, and the actions taken depend on the psychological function(s) of that relational network of stimuli. A seemingly trivial situation may therefore elicit very strong reactions due to the associations being made: a relatively modest pain sensation from the neck trigger thoughts like “pain in the neck is bad,” which in turn are related to ideas such as “it may be a fragile disk,” and “something is terribly wrong,” that eventually lead to fatalistic conclusions like “I will end up in a wheelchair.” Thus, even if the initial stimulus is modest, it may activate a relational network of stimuli with very aversive psychological functions.

In other words, we develop these networks of meaning from the time we’re little until we die, and these mean any experience (situation, context, stimulus, event, action) holds meaning unique and particular to the individual. And these networks of meaning are constructed effortlessly and usually without any overt awareness. Each event/experience (yeah and the rest) then has further influence on how we experience any subsequent event/experience. So if you’ve learned that back pain is a Very Bad Thing, and you’ve done so since you were a kid because your Mother had back pain and took herself to the doctor and then stopped playing with you, you may have a very strong network of relationships built between low back pain, resting, healthcare, abandonment, sadness, anger, loneliness, fear, mother, father, pills, treatment – and the this goes on.

So when we’re beginning to construct a clinical reasoning model for something like low back pain we cannot exclude the “what does it mean” relationship. Every time someone experiences “ouch!” they’re processing a network of associations and relationships and behaviours that go on to influence their response to that experience – and affect attention to it and subsequent response to it.

Over 1000 words and I’ve not even started on emotions and pain!

Take home message: Even if we think we’re not addressing “psychological” stuff – we ARE. Omitting the “what does it mean to you?” and failing to factor that in to our clinical reasoning and subsequent treatment means we’re walking uphill on a scree slope. Oh, and telling someone they’re safe does not change those associations, especially if they’re longstanding. There’s more needed.

 

Legrain V, Damme SV, Eccleston C, Davis KD, Seminowicz DA, & Crombez G (2009). A neurocognitive model of attention to pain: behavioral and neuroimaging evidence. Pain, 144 (3), 230-2 PMID: 19376654

Sharp, T. J. (2001). Chronic pain: A reformulation of the cognitive-behavioural model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(7), 787-800. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7967(00)00061-9

Tousignant-Laflamme, Y., Martel, M. O., Joshi, A. B., & Cook, C. E. (2017). Rehabilitation management of low back pain – it’s time to pull it all together! Journal of Pain Research, 10, 2373-2385. doi:10.2147/JPR.S146485

Wicksell, R. K., & Vowles, K. E. (2015). The role and function of acceptance and commitment therapy and behavioral flexibility in pain management. Pain Management, 5(5), 319-322. doi:10.2217/pmt.15.32

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5 comments

  1. Well written, well stated and I sure hope this gets the attention of a whole bunch whose language implicitly states that cognitions are the most powerful way to change pain related disability and pain, and whose language suggests pain science education and simple cognitive reassurance is all that is needed to feel safe and have less pain during movement

    1. The underlying mechanisms, according to relational frame theory and contextual behavioural science, are probably just those mechanisms – the main distinction is that the act-in-context is viewed rather than simply the action. Context matters – someone can be functional in one context but doing the same thing in a different place, be considered nonfunctional.

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