The demise of practical pain management


Cast your mind back to the last time you decided to create a new habit. It might have been to eat more healthy food, to do daily mindfulness, to go for a walk each day. Something you chose, something you decided when, where and how you did it, something that you thought would be a great addition to your routine.

How did it go? How long did it take to become a habit you didn’t need to deliberately think about? How did you organise the rest of your life to create room for this new habit? What did other people say about you doing this?

While we all know a reasonable amount about motivation for change – importance and confidence being the two major drivers – and as clinicians most of us are in the business of helping people to make changes that we hope will become habitual, have you ever stopped to think about what we ask people with pain to do?

It’s not just “do some exercise”, it’s often “and some mindfulness”, and “you could probably eat more healthily”, and “organise your activities so you can pace them out” – and “take these medications at this and this time”, “attend these appointments”, “think about things differently”… the list continues.

Now, for a moment, cast your mind back to the last few research papers you read, maybe even a textbook of pain management, the most recent course you went on, the latest CPD.

Was there anything at all on how people with pain integrate all of these things into their life?

Lewis et al., (2019) reviewed inpatient pain management programmes over 5 decades. They found 104 studies spanning from 1970’s to 2010’s. Unsurprisingly the content, format and clinicians involved in these programmes has changed – but you might be surprised at some other changes… Lewis and colleagues found that physiotherapy (primarily exercise) remained at similar levels over time, but programmes gradually became less operant conditioning-based (ie behavioural reinforcement with a focus on changing behaviour) to become more cognitive behavioural (working with thoughts and beliefs, often without necessarily including real world behaviour change), with reduced emphasis on reducing medications and less family involvement. While the same numbers of physiotherapists, doctors and psychologists remain, nurses and occupational therapists are decreasingly involved.

What’s the problem with this? Isn’t this what the research tells us is “evidence-based”?

Let’s think for a moment about effect sizes in chronic pain. They’re small across all modalities when we look at outcomes across a group. There are some gaps in our understanding of what, and how, pain management programmes “work”. We know that movement is a good thing – but effect sizes are small. We don’t know how many people maintain their exercise programmes even six months after discharge. We also don’t know how well movements taught in a clinic transfer into daily life contexts, especially where fear and avoidance are being targeted. We don’t know who, if anyone, carries on using mindfulness, cognitive strategies such as thought reframing or reality testing, and we don’t know many people leave a programme thinking they’ve been told their pain is “in their head” (though, to be fair, this is something we’ve had problems with for at least the 30 years I’ve been doing this work!).

So while assessment might be more “holistic” and outcomes more likely to be about quality of life and disability, the minutiae of how people with persistent pain integrate and synthesise what they learn in pain management programmes into their own life contexts is invisible. It’s not even part of many pain management programmes.

We could turn to the qualitative literature for some insights. Mathias et al., (2014) interviewed people two weeks after completing a programme. Munday et al., (2021) selected people toward the end of a three week programme. Farr et al., (2021) talked to people up to 24 months after a programme – but in the context of a peer-led support group (which, by the way, I think are marvellous!), Penney et al., (2019) interviewed veterans to identify outcomes, barriers and facilitators to ongoing pain management – but don’t indicate how long after a programme their participants were interviewed. So we don’t know what pain management strategies “stick” and remain in use, integrated into daily life.

So many questions come up for me! Do pain questionnaires measure what matters to people? Can a 0 – 10 response on an item of the Pain Self Efficacy Questionnaire (Nicholas, 2007) represent how someone draws on, and uses, coping strategies to do what matters? Does a response on the 0 – 10 Pain Disability Index (Tait, Chibnall & Krause, 1990) adequately capture how a person does their daily life? If we help people “do exercise” but they don’t continue with these exercises once they resume their own life – what is the point? Why are family members not included any more? How does this fit with New Zealand’s Te Whare Tapa Whā model of health?

The problem/s?

The health profession that entirely focuses on helping people do what matters in their life (occupational therapists use occupation or daily doing as both therapy and outcome) has had trouble describing our contribution. We don’t, as a profession, fit well into a medical model of health. We focus almost exclusively on the “Function” and “Participation” parts of the ICF – and we focus on daily life contexts. Researching our contribution using RCTs is difficult because we offer unique solutions that help this person and their whanau in their own context, and no-one’s daily life looks the same as another’s. We are about meaning, expressing individuality and self concept through the way we do our lives. This doesn’t lend itself to a clinic-based practice, or a hospital, or a standardised treatment, or treatment algorithms. Our contribution has been eroded over time. Very few pain management programmes incorporate occupational therapy – most are physiotherapy + psychology. This is especially noticeable in NZs ACC community pain management programmes.

Pain management is often based on the assumption that if a person is told what to do, perhaps gets to do it in a clinic with a therapist, this is sufficient. And for some people, especially those who view themselves in the same way as therapists (ie, individual responsibility), and people with the psychological flexibility and internal resources to just do it, they may do quite well. BUT consider the people we know who don’t. People from different cultures, lower socio-economic living, neurodiverse, those with competing values, lack of confidence, lack of personal agency – these are the people who don’t do as well in all of our healthcare, and especially those programmes relying on “self-management”.

Programmes also assume that what is done in a clinic can readily transfer to daily life. Clinics are contained, often purpose-built, usually regulated, and have a therapist handy. People are there for the one purpose. Daily life, on the other hand, is highly variable, holds multiple competing demands, other people question what you’re doing and why, is quite chaotic and messy. And there is no therapist. How does a person decide what to do, when, how, and why?

Remember your challenges with developing one new habit. How you had to stake a claim in your own life to create space for this new activity. How you sometimes forgot. How a change in one part of your life undermined you doing this new thing. How this was only one change. Only one. And what do we ask people with pain to do? And we don’t even bother to find out what is still being done 12 months down the track.

Practical pain management is about helping someone work out how to organise their week so they can add in this new exercise programme that might help, alongside having time and energy to be a good Mum, pick the kids up from school, sort the washing, do the groceries, oh and the car needs a new warrant, and I need a new prescription for my meds.

It’s about working out the best time of day to do some mindfulness – when will it do the most good? when can I fit it in? how do I deal with my partner wanting to get out and start the day while I’m meditating?

It’s about communicating to my boss, my colleagues and my customers that I need to get up and walk around – and maybe say no to some new projects at the moment. Perhaps I need to be more assertive about my own needs. Perhaps I’m worried I’ll lose my job because I need to make these changes….

In the rush to streamline pain management to the bare bones, I wonder if we have forgotten who it is all about. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata – it is people, it is people, it is people. Let’s remember that coping strategies and exercise and all the psychological approaches need to be continued for months, and even years. And this means helping people work out what our suggestions look like in their own life. Let’s not omit the profession that puts people and what their daily life looks like as its reason for being.

Tait, R. C., Chibnall, J. T., & Krause, S. (1990). The pain disability index: psychometric properties. Pain, 40(2), 171-182.

Farr, M., Brant, H., Patel, R., Linton, M. J., Ambler, N., Vyas, S., Wedge, H., Watkins, S., & Horwood, J. (2021, Dec 11). Experiences of Patient-Led Chronic Pain Peer Support Groups After Pain Management Programs: A Qualitative Study. Pain Medicine, 22(12), 2884-2895. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnab189

Lewis, G. N., Bean, D., & Mowat, R. (2019, Sep). How Have Chronic Pain Management Programs Progressed? A Mapping Review. Pain Practice, 19(7), 767-784. https://doi.org/10.1111/papr.12805

Mathias, B., Parry-Jones, B., & Huws, J. C. (2014). Individual experiences of an acceptance-based pain management programme: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Psychology & Health, 29(3), 279-296. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2013.845667

Nicholas, M. K. (2007, Feb). The pain self-efficacy questionnaire: Taking pain into account. European Journal of Pain, 11(2), 153-163. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpain.2005.12.008

Penney, L. S., & Haro, E. (2019). Qualitative evaluation of an interdisciplinary chronic pain intervention: outcomes and barriers and facilitators to ongoing pain management. Journal of Pain Research, 12, 865-878. https://doi.org/10.2147/JPR.S185652

4 comments

  1. Great article! The untold truth is pain management is about going to a doctor’s office, peeing in a cup and waiting for a 30day prescription for pain meds! I did this for almost 9 years. In 2021 I weaned myself off the drugs and tried medical marijuana. I received very little guidance! I have not had much success with the marijuana as I don’t really know what to do with it. How much to take, how many times a day, etc. I have now been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and am in constant pain. I do not want to take opioids and the pain is 24/7. This happens every day in every pain clinic in this country!

    1. I’m so sorry this has been your experience. It does depend on where you live – I write for a New Zealand audience, and follow the IASP line about the need for multidisciplinary/transprofessional working for people living with pain. The daily living with pain stuff that’s what people with pain REALLY want and need (because meds often don’t cut it) is so often completely omitted, it makes me want to scream. Time for people with pain to get together and call for an attitude shift from legislators, policy makers, clinicians, insurers, the lot. We all deserve better.

    2. Oh and I meant to add that cannabis-based meds don’t seem to have much of an effect on the kinds of difficult-to-treat pains that you and I live with. I have fibro – nothing happens with cannabis-based meds. In a meta-analysis I read, the average pain reduction across the studies showed a 4mm reduction on a 0 – 100mm scale. That’s not a lot of pain relief.

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