Clinical reasoning – and cognitions

Possibly one of the most hotly discussed aspects of clinical reasoning and pain relates to thoughts and beliefs held by both people experiencing pain and the clinicians who work with them. It’s difficult to avoid reading papers about “pain education”, “catastrophising”, “maladaptive thinking”, but quite another to find a deeper analysis of when and why it might be useful to help people think differently about their pain, or to deal with their thoughts about their experience in a different way.

Cognition is defined by the APA Dictionary of Psychology as

1. all forms of knowing and awareness, such as perceiving, conceiving, remembering, reasoning, judging, imagining, and problem solving. Along with affect and conation, it is one of the three traditionally identified components of mind.

2. an individual percept, idea, memory, or the like. —cognitional adj. —cognitive adj.

Cognitions are arguable The Thing most accessible to ourselves and most distinctive about humans – indeed, we call ourselves “homo sapiens” or “wise man” possibly because we can recognise we have thoughts! Although, as you can see from the definition above, many aspects of cognition are not as readily available to consciousness as we might imagine.

From the early days of pain management, explanations about the biology of pain have been included. Indeed, since 1965 when Melzack and Wall introduced the Gate Control Theory, in which modulation and descending control were identified, clinicians working in pain management centres have actively included these aspects of pain biology as part of an attempt to help people with pain understand the distinction between hurting – and being harmed (see Bonica, 1993).

The purpose behind the original approaches to “explaining pain” were to provide a coherent explanation to people in pain as to the “benign” nature of their experience: in other words, by changing the understanding people held about their pain, people were more likely to willingly engage in rehabilitation – and this rehabilitation largely involved gradually increasing “up time” and reducing unhelpful positions or activity levels. Sound familiar? (see Moseley & Butler, 2015).

Of course, in the early days of pain management, specific relationships between thoughts and both automatic and volitional behaviour were unclear. What we know now is that if I wire someone up to a biofeedback machine, measuring say heart rate variability, respiration and skin conductance, and then I mention something related to the person’s appraisals of their pain – maybe “Oh this really hurts”, or “I don’t think I’ll sleep tonight with this pain” those parameters I’m measuring will fluctuate wildly. Typically, people will experience an increase of physiological arousal in response to thinking those kinds of thoughts. In turn, that elevated arousal can lead to an increased perception of pain – and increased attention to pain with difficulty taking attention off pain (see Lanzetta, Cartwright-Smith & Eleck, 1976; Crombez, Viane, Eccleston, Devuler & Goubert, 2013).

So, the relationship between what we think and both attention to pain and physiological response to those thoughts is reasonably well-established, such that if someone reports high levels of catastrophising, we can expect to find high levels of disability, and reports of higher levels of pain. So far, so good. BUT how do we integrate these findings into our clinical reasoning, especially if we’re not primarily psychologically-oriented in our treatments?

The answer has been to dish out “pain education” to everyone – giving an explanation of some of the biological underpinnings of our experience. But for some of our patients this isn’t useful, especially if they have already heard the “pain talk” – but it has only hit the head and not the heart.

As Wilbert Fordyce was known to say “Information is to behaviour change as spaghetti is to a brick”. In other words – it might hit the brick and cover it, but it doesn’t change the brick, and neither does it move the brick!

You see, cognitions are not just “thoughts”, nor thoughts we are consciously aware of. Cognitions include implicit understanding, attention, the “feeling of what it is like to” and so on. And as occupational therapists and educators have found over the years, experiential learning (learning by doing) is one of the most powerful forms of behaviour change available (Kolb, 2014). People learn by experiencing something different. This is why cognitive behavioural approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) so strongly endorse experiential elements.

Rather than attempting to change someone’s head knowledge of pain=harm, it might be more useful to help them experience doing something different and help them explore and generate their own conclusions from the experience.

I think both occupational therapists and clinicians who provide opportunities for movements and experiences (such as massage therapists, physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors, myotherapists etc) are in an ideal position to guide people through new experiences – and then help them explore those new experiences. Rather than telling people what to think or believe (especially amongst those folks who are unconvinced by “book learning”!) we’re in a good position to help them work out what’s going through their minds – and what it feels like to do something differently. Instead of convincing, we can help people ponder for themselves. This is the essence of graded exposure: going from “OMG I can’t do that!” to “Oh yeah, I can master this”. It’s the difference between reading about how to ride a bicycle – and actually getting on a bike to learn to ride.

I agree that cognitive processes are really important in understanding a person’s experience of pain. I think, though, we’ve focused on overt thoughts to the detriment of trying to understand other aspects of cognition. We need to spend some more time exploring attention and distraction from pain; memories and how these influence pain; and to examine some of the implicit features of our understanding – and instead of approaching changes to thinking/understanding via the hammer of information dumping, maybe we can ponder the opportunities that arise from helping people experience something different and new.



Bonica, J. J. (1993). Evolution and current status of pain programs. Journal of Pharmaceutical Care in Pain & Symptom Control, 1(2), 31-44. doi:10.1300/J088v01n02_03

Crombez, G., Viane, I., Eccleston, C., Devulder, J., & Goubert, L. (2013). Attention to pain and fear of pain in patients with chronic pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 36(4), 371-378.
Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (2nd Ed), Pearson Education: New Jersey.
Lanzetta, J. T., Cartwright-Smith, J., & Eleck, R. E. (1976). Effects of nonverbal dissimulation on emotional experience and autonomic arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33(3), 354.

Moseley, G. L., & Butler, D. S. (2015). Fifteen years of explaining pain: The past, present, and future. Journal of Pain, 16(9), 807-813. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2015.05.005



  1. Thanks for your great article Bronnie. As someone living with upper limb CRPS, I’ve distracted myself from pain too well & have “lost” awareness of my right side resulting in poor balance falls etc….

    1. It’s tough – and also represents some of the problems that CRPS generates in the brain (neglecting that side is reasonably common). The best approach I’ve seen for this is using a mindfulness with compassion approach where you gently guide your attention to the side you often don’t attend to – this can be done with eyes open, and then with eyes closed. It’s important to really take time to notice as much as you can, but not to judge it as good or bad or painful or comfortable – just to notice and be a bit curious about the feelings. It might take a while to get OK with being aware of the most painful areas, but it eases over time, and you find it’s easier to remember it. If you can, see if people will sit on that side so you have to turn to them to talk, and this will help you become more aware of that side. It’s a real challenge but Go You! You can do it!

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