Biopsychological pain management is not enough


I recently read a preprint of an editorial for Pain, the IASP journal. It was written by Prof Michael Nicholas, and the title reads “The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal?” The paper outlines when and how pain became conceptualised within a biopsychosocial framework by the pioneers of interprofessional pain management: John Loeser (1982) and Gordon Waddell (1984). Nicholas points out the arguments against a biopsychosocial model with some people considering that despite it being a “holistic” framework, it often gets applied in a biomedical and psychological way. In other words, that biomedical concerns are prioritised, with the psychosocial factors relegated to second place and only after the biomedical treatments have not helped. Still others separate the relationships between “bio” “psycho” and “social” such that the interdependent nature of these factors is not recognisable.

Nicholas declares, too:

“… that cognitive behavioural therapy interventions that did not also include workplace modifications or service coordination components were not effective in helping workers with mental health conditions in RTW. That means, just like in the case of reducing time lost at school for children in pain, the treatment providers for adults in pain for whom RTW is a goal should liaise closely with the workplace. Unfortunately, as the studies from the systematic reviews examined earlier for a range of common pain therapies indicated, engaging with the workplace as part of the treatment seems to be rarely attempted.

I find this confusing. In 1999 I completed my MSc thesis looking at this very thing: pain management combined with a focus on using pain management approaches in the workplace. The programme was called “WorkAbilities” and included visits to the workplace, liaison with employers and even job seeking for those who didn’t have a job to return to. The confusion for me lies in the fact that I’ve been doing pain rehabilitation within the workplace since the mid-1980’s – and that while today’s approach for people funded by ACC is separated from pain management (more is the pity), there are many clinicians actively working in pain rehabilitation in the context of returning to work here in New Zealand.

I’m further puzzled by the complete lack of inclusion by Nicholas of occupational therapy’s contribution to “the social” aspects of learning to live well with pain. This, despite the many studies showing occupational therapists are intimately connected with social context: the things people do in their daily lives, with the people and environmental contexts in which they do them. You see, occupational therapists do this routinely. We work with the person in their own environment and this includes home, work, leisure.

For those that remain unaware of what occupational therapists offer people with pain, I put it like this: Occupational therapists provide contextualised therapy, our work is in knowledge translation or generalising the things people learn in gyms, and in clinics, and helping people do these things in their life, their way.

An example might help.

Joe (not his real name) had a sore back, he’d had it for about three months and was seeing a physiotherapist and a psychologist funded by ACC (NZ’s national insurer). Not much was changing. He remained fearful of moving especially in his workplace where he was a heavy diesel mechanic and was under pressure from a newly promoted workshop manager to get things done quickly. Joe was sore and cranky, didn’t sleep well, and his partner was getting fed up. Joe’s problems were:

  • guarding his lower back when moving
  • fear he would further hurt his back if he lifted heavy things, or worked in a bent-over position, or the usual awkward positions diesel mechanics adopt
  • avoiding said movements and positions, or doing them with gritted teeth and a lot of guarding
  • poor sleep despite the sleep hygiene his psychologist had prescribed
  • irritability
  • thoroughly enjoying the gym-based exercise programme
  • hating mindfulness and any of the CBT-based strategies the psychologist was offering him, because as he put it “I never did homework when I went to school, do you think I’m going to do it now? and this mindfulness thing doesn’t work!”

The occupational therapist visited Joe at home. She went through his daily routine and noticed that he didn’t spend any time on “fun” things or with his mates. His intimacy with his partner was scant because the medications he was on were making it hard for him to even get an erection, and his partner was scared he’d be hurt when they made love. Besides, she was fed up with all the time he had to spend going in to the gym after work when he wasn’t doing simple things around home, like mowing lawns, or helping with grocery shopping.

She went into his workplace and found it was a small four-person operation, with one workshop manager, two mechanics and one apprentice. The workshop was a health and safety hazard, messy and cramped, and open to the weather. The relationships between the team were strained with unpleasant digs at his failure to keep up the pace. The workshop manager said that he’d do his best to help Joe out – but in the end he needed to get the work out on time. The other mechanic, an old hand, meanwhile was telling Joe to suck it up and be a man, but also to watch out because Joe shouldn’t do as he’d done and shagged his back.

What did our erstwhile occupational therapist do? Absolutely nothing new that the physiotherapist and psychologist hadn’t taught Joe – but she worked out when, where and how Joe could USE the strategies they’d discussed in his life contexts. She went through the way he moved in the workshop and guided him to relax a little and find some new movement patterns to be able to do his work. She graded the challenges for him, and stayed with him as he experimented. She discussed alternating the tasks he did, interspersing tasks that involved bending forward with those where he could stand upright or even work above his head (in the pit). She discussed how he could use being fully present at various times during the day (mindfulness) to check in with his body and go for a brisk walk if he felt himself tensing up. She worked through communication strategies that they rehearsed and he implemented to let his manager know what he could – and could not – do.

They discussed his home life, and ways he could begin doing some of the household tasks he’d been avoiding, and she showed him how to go about this. They worked out the best time of day to do this – and to vary the exercise he did so that it wasn’t all about the gym. He started to walk over rough ground to get more confident for when he went fishing again, and he got himself a little stool to sit on from time to time. Joe and his occupational therapist talked about his relationship with his partner, and they met together with her so they could share what his back pain meant, the restrictions he had, what he could do, and how else they could be intimate. Joe was encouraged to rehearse and then tell his doctor about the effect of his meds on his sex life.

The minutiae of daily life, translating what is learned in a clinic to that person’s own world is, and always has been, the province of occupational therapy. It’s just a little sad that such a prominent researcher and author hasn’t included any of this in this editorial.

Just a small sample of research in which occupational therapists are involved in RTW.

Bardo, J., Asiello, J., & Sleight, A. (2022). Supporting Health for the Long Haul: a literature synthesis and proposed occupational therapy self-management virtual group intervention for return-to-work. World Federation of Occupational Therapists Bulletin, 1-10.

Berglund, E., Anderzén, I., Andersén, Å., Carlsson, L., Gustavsson, C., Wallman, T., & Lytsy, P. (2018). Multidisciplinary intervention and acceptance and commitment therapy for return-to-work and increased employability among patients with mental illness and/or chronic pain: a randomized controlled trial. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(11), 2424.

Cullen K, Irvin E, Collie A, Clay F, Gensby U, Jennings P, Hogg-Johnson S, Kristman V, Laberge M, McKenzie D. Effectiveness of workplace interventions in return-to-work for musculoskeletal, pain-related and mental health conditions: an update of the evidence and messages for practitioners. J Occup Rehabil 2018;28:1–15.

Grant, M., Rees, S., Underwood, M. et al. Obstacles to returning to work with chronic pain: in-depth interviews with people who are off work due to chronic pain and employers. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 486 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2877-5

Fischer, M. R., Persson, E. B., Stålnacke, B. M., Schult, M. L., & Löfgren, M. (2019). Return to work after interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: one-and two-year follow-up study based on the swedish quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 51(4), 281-289.

Fischer, M. R., Schults, M. L., Stålnacke, B. M., Ekholm, J., Persson, E. B., & Löfgren, M. (2020). Variability in patient characteristics and service provision of interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: A study using? the Swedish national quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 52(11), 1-10.

Ibrahim, M.E., Weber, K., Courvoisier, D.S. et al. Recovering the capability to work among patients with chronic low Back pain after a four-week, multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation program: 18-month follow-up study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 439 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2831-6

Marom, B. S., Ratzon, N. Z., Carel, R. S., & Sharabi, M. (2019). Return-to-work barriers among manual workers after hand injuries: 1-year follow-up cohort study. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 100(3), 422-432.

Michel, C., Guêné, V., Michon, E., Roquelaure, Y., & Petit, A. (2018). Return to work after rehabilitation in chronic low back pain workers. Does the interprofessional collaboration work?. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 32(4), 521-524

Nicholas, M.K. (in press). The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal? Pain.

6 comments

  1. Can’t go past a case report to ‘get’ (in vivo) how things really work-in together
    Wonder about the scope of the SRs informing him..?

      1. IDT ?
        Guessing here, are you saying the scope of reported OT contribution then was thin?

      2. Occupational therapy is not mentioned by Michael Nicholas in his paper while physiotherapy and psychology (and medical interventions) are. Occupational therapists have been involved in offering pain management for many years, in fact since Fordyce and consistently in interprofessional pain management – and as I say in this blog, occupational therapists routinely engage in “the social” from involving family, the workplace, schools, and all the contexts in which people live their daily lives. These are not all of “the social”, but they are some, and are at the heart of occupational therapy.

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