Rehab fails: What goes wrong in pain rehabilitation (1)


Well obviously I’m not going to cover everything that goes wrong – and certainly not in one post! But inspired by some conversations I’ve had recently, I thought I’d discuss some of the common #fails we do in rehabilitation. Things that might explain why people with pain are thought to be “unmotivated” or “noncompliant” – because if the rehab doesn’t ‘work’ of course it’s the person with pain who’s at fault, right? So for today, here goes.

Starting at the wrong intensity

One of the main things that happens when someone’s in pain is to reduce overall activity level. Pain has been called “activity intolerance” and it’s common for people to stop doing. So naturally when a clinician is developing an activity or exercise programme, the aim is often to simply increase how much movement a person does in a day. So far, so good. Muscles and cardiovascular systems improve when we use them.

But guess what? There’s a person inside that body! And people have minds. Minds with opinions about everything and in particular, anything to do with doing. There’s often a “should” about how much movement or activity to do. This rule might be based on “pain is a sign of tissue damage” so anything that increases pain clearly “should not be done”. There may equally be a “should” about how much exercise this person used to do, or wants to do, and often mental comments about “what kind of a person does this amount of exercise.”

I’ve heard good clinicians say that their patients “have unrealistic goals” – this is probably because the person’s mind has an opinion about what he or she “should” be able to do!

What can good therapists do about this? Well, firstly to ignore the person who inhabits the body is plain wrong. Secondly, flashy gadgets like coloured tapes or special elastics or foam thingies probably won’t do much for the person’s opinionated mind except to temporarily distract — oooh! shiny!!

Something I might do would be to ask the person what level they think they can begin at – beginning where the person is at, and moving at his or her pace is a solid foundation for developing a relationship where experimenting with movement becomes about the person and his or her relationship with their body. I think one of the aims of movement rehabilitation is to help the person develop trust in their own body and how it moves, so enhancing playfulness and experimentation can be a good start.

I might ask the person “what shows up when we begin doing this set of movements/exercises”? By “showing up” I’m talking about thoughts, images, sensations in the body that pop into a person’s mind (minds are soooo opinionated!). We might need to guide the person to notice quick thoughts or images, to put words to emotions and feelings, and to get in touch with fleeting sensations in the body.

Some of the things I’ve heard people say include: “only weak losers would call this exercise”, “I used to be able to lift 40kg sacks of cement and now all I can move is this pathetic 5kg dumbbell”, “he wants me to do what?! I hate boring exercises”, “but what am I going to feel like tomorrow?”

What do we do with these thoughts?

First: make room for them to be present. Don’t quickly deny them “Oh of course you’re not weak”, “5kg isn’t pathetic”, “exercise is great fun”, “you’ll be fine, you can do this”. Saying these sorts of things dismisses the validity of the person’s fears and won’t win you any friends.

Second: empathic reflection. Indicate that you’ve heard what the person has said, validate that this is their experience, their thoughts. Something like “it’s a long way from what you used to lift, and that’s hard”, “it’s tough beginning to build up again”, “you’re worried that this is going to be unrewarding”, “you’ve had pain flare-ups before, and it’s hard to deal with”.

Third: Ask the person where they’d like to begin, put them in control of the intensity. Then ask them “how do you think that’s going to pan out” – in other words, will their option get them to where they want to be? What’s good about it? What’s not so good about it? from their perspective not yours! The idea is to establish how workable the person’s starting point might be. It might be perfectly fine, even if it’s not your choice!

Fourth: Affirm that the choice is the person’s – and that this is an experiment that will be reviewed at the next session. You might say something like “So you’d like to try doing 5 minutes of walking instead of the treadmill that I suggested, because you think this shouldn’t flare your pain up as much. What’s your choice now that we’ve talked about the good and not so good? We can review it next time.”

Fifth: Review how it went at the next session! Note down the rationale the person had for the level of intensity they chose, and then review how well that intensity worked from this perspective. For example “you wanted to do 5 minutes of walking because it wouldn’t flare you pain up as much, what did you notice? What showed up? How well did it work?” Notice all the open-ended questions, the reminder that the person thought this intensity wouldn’t flare their pain as much, and the focus on workability. Because at the beginning of a movement or exercise programme, what you’re looking for is adherence, sticking to the level of intensity chosen. Habits take time to make, and often adhering to a programme is because the opinionated mind is having a go at the person, interfering with their willingness to stick with it. If we avoid that roadblock, we have at least one point on the board.

Your opinionated mind might now be telling you that “oh they’ll never make progress at that pace”, “they’ll do themselves an injury if they lift that much”, “this is just pandering to their lack of motivation”

Be careful! At this point you could reflect on what’s showing up for you. Are you worried their outcomes will reflect badly on you? Do you only have a few sessions with the person and need them to get somewhere or you’ll have failed? Make room for those uncomfortable feelings. Let them be present and listen to what your opinionated mind is telling you. Maybe remind yourself that outcomes don’t depend on you – they depend on the person sticking to the programme, and a programme that doesn’t start because the person’s mind tells them it’s not worth it is a #rehabfail Remember also that you’re aiming for the person to gain confidence in their body, learn to listen to what happens when they try something out – the repeated progress reviews you do with the person are the actual active ingredients in therapy, they’re the bits that help the person to reflect on what works, and what doesn’t. That’s gold.

ps The technique I’ve described above is – gasp! – a psychological approach, based on ACT and motivational interviewing. You won’t find a specific study examining this approach in journals (at least not in a cursory search like I did!), but it’s an application of well-studied approaches into a movement or exercise context. It’s the same approach I use in contextually-relevant occupational therapy. Reading Bailey et al, 2020, affirms to me that we have a way to go to define and measure adherence, so I feel justified in using these strategies!

Bailey, D. L., Holden, M. A., Foster, N. E., Quicke, J. G., Haywood, K. L., & Bishop, A. (2020, Mar). Defining adherence to therapeutic exercise for musculoskeletal pain: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med, 54(6), 326-331. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2017-098742

Eynon, M., Foad, J., Downey, J., Bowmer, Y., & Mills, H. (2019). Assessing the psychosocial factors associated with adherence to exercise referral schemes: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 29(5), 638-650. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13403

Levi, Y., Gottlieb, U., Shavit, R., & Springer, S. (2021). A matter of choice: Should students self-select exercise for their nonspecific chronic low back pain? A controlled study. Journal of American College Health, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2021.1960845

3 comments

  1. This is excellent. I had multiple “rehab fails” until I met a physical therapist willing and able to meet me where I was. Before her when I said “if I do it at this intensity, it will cost me 3 days of serious pain” I was met with doubt/disbelief/”just try it” reactions. And then I pushed myself into doing too much because I internalized that I was “lazy”, kept irritating already stressed areas and ultimately getting worse over time. It made a massive difference to have a therapist who said “you won’t be able to sustain anything that causes constant discomfort” and devised a program which was based on “I will do it every day, my pain may flare up for 30 minutes as a result but will settle after”. I could actually stick to it over the long term and eventually built up my ability to walk and exercise to the level that I had thought forever out of my reach.

    1. Thanks so much! I reflect on the fact that people won’t do what they’re coerced into doing – and this might explain so many people being “noncompliant” (a term I hate!). From your experience it seems that two things are important: that you could articulate your experience (super important) and that your therapist was willing to hear you.
      So pleased to hear that you’ve managed to get to do what you want to do!

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