Here I go, stepping into “the bio” to write about movement. Oh dear, what am I doing?
Movement practices of various kinds are part and parcel of pain management. In fact, to read some of the material in social media-land, exercise is the be-all and end-all of pain management, maybe with a dash of psychology. Can we please stop doing this?
I’ve said it often, for many forms of persistent pain, especially the most common forms – nonspecific chronic low back pain, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritic pain – movement is a good thing, but the effect sizes are small for both pain intensity and disability (eg Jayden, et al., 2021). I’ve reproduced the author’s conclusions below:
We found moderate‐certainty evidence that exercise is probably effective for treatment of chronic low back pain compared to no treatment, usual care or placebo for pain. The observed treatment effect for the exercise compared to no treatment, usual care or placebo comparisons is small for functional limitations, not meeting our threshold for minimal clinically important difference. We also found exercise to have improved pain (low‐certainty evidence) and functional limitations outcomes (moderate‐certainty evidence) compared to other conservative treatments; however, these effects were small and not clinically important when considering all comparisons together. Subgroup analysis suggested that exercise treatment is probably more effective than advice or education alone, or electrotherapy, but with no differences observed for manual therapy treatments.
So for chronic low back pain, short-term pain intensity reduction is clinically significant, but neither functional limitations nor pain intensity reductions over the long-term reached clinical significance. Ouch! This means that we must not oversell the usefulness of exercise as a panacea for chronic pain.
Some missing bits in this meta-analysis: how many people carried on doing their exercise programmes? Why did they keep on going if they didn’t experience reduced pain or better function? How many people dropped out from follow-up?
But my biggest question is “Why does increased physical fitness and reduced pain not translate into better function in daily life?” And of course, my next question is “What might improve the daily life outcomes for people with pain?”
I might also ask why there is so much emphasis on exercise as an approach for chronic pain? Why oh why? One reason could be the assumptions made about the reasons people have trouble with daily life activities. A reasonable assumption might be that people are unfit. Another might be that people don’t have confidence to move. But if these assumptions were true, we’d see better results than this. Perhaps we need to be much more sophisticated and begin to explore what really does impact a person’s daily life activities? My plea therefore is that we cease doing RCTs comparing exercises of various forms to placebo, no treatment or usual care. Please. We know movement is a good thing, and with the enormous number of studies carried out, surely we can stop now?!*
Here are some clinical reasoning pointers when employing movement practices. I’m being agnostic with respect to what form of movement practice [insert your favourite here].
- Find out what the person enjoys doing for movement/exercise. Aim to do this, or build towards doing this. Start low and build up intensity, load and frequency.
- Find out why the person has stopped doing their movement/exercise practice. If pain has stopped them, be curious about what they think is going on, what they think the pain means, what happens if they experience pain doing their favourite movement practice, and find out how long and how much they’ve done before pain stops them. Then address unhelpful beliefs, re-set the starting point and progress in a gentle graded way.
- If the person hasn’t ever been a movement/exercise person, be curious about why. Explore this in detail – beliefs about movement, movement practices they’ve tried, time available, cost, all the things that might get in the way of doing a movement practice. You might find it was a high school physical ed. practice that totally put them off – but look beyond “exercise” or “sports” and remember that movement includes walking, dancing, gardening, playing with the dog, fishing, kayaking….
When you’re starting to generate a movement practice programme, for goodness sake ask the person when they’re going to find time to do it, and don’t make it too long! Explore when might be the most convenient time, and what might make it easy to do. Use low cost, low-tech practices. Find out what might get in the way of doing the movement practice, and do some problem-solving – anticipate what goes through a person’s mind and together, come up with counter-arguments or better, think of some really important values that might underpin the reason to do what is undoubtedly difficult for this person in their life.
Think about life-long habits and routines. How might this person explore options that could fit into their life as they get older? What might they do if the weather is bad, or they have an addition to the family? How many different movement practices can you and the person think of? And remember, if it’s OK for a person at a gym to do “leg day” one day, and “arm day” another, it’s perfectly fine for someone to do gardening one day, and go for a walk up the hill the next. Don’t be boring! Invite exploration and variety.
Work on translating the movement practices you and the person do in clinic into the daily life movements the person is having trouble doing. This might mean asking the person about their daily life and what’s most difficult for them to do right now. If it’s bending to load/unload the dishwasher, ask them what’s going on, what comes up for them when they do this? Is the problem about physical capability – or is it because it’s at the end of a long day at work, they’re tired and haven’t been sleeping and they’re worrying about how the pain in their back is going to affect their sleep tonight? If it’s the latter – guess what, physical exercise isn’t going to change this! So talk about what they can do to help with their sleep, or if that’s not your forte, talk to another team member (occupational therapist, psychologist) about what might help.
Note that as clinicians, we have no right to dictate what a person’s life looks like. This means we can’t judge a person for their choice of movement practice. We also can’t dictate how often or how intense their “workout” should be. It’s going to vary, depending on all the things this person in front of you values most. And we must respect this – don’t be judgemental, their values may be very different from yours, and this is perfectly OK. Just help them explore the good – and not so good – of their choices.
Finally, don’t be afraid to have fun with movement! Play a little. If disc golf is the person’s thing – go try it out! If jive dance is their thing, maybe it’s time you gave that a go. If they like hiking to a quiet spot to do a little bird photography, go with them and carry your own camera gear. If their life is so busy that movement practice gets squeezed out, work with them to find ways to get movement snacks into their day. Don’t be boring. And worry a little less about “prescribing” movement, and much more about experiencing your body as a living sensory being – get in the moment and enjoy what your body is able to do. That is really what we’re encouraging in movement practices for chronic pain.
*A couple of other guesses for why exercise gets seen as The Best Thing – it’s “cheap” in comparison with other options, people can do it reasonably easily after therapy, there are LOTS of physiotherapists and others who offer this, it appeals to our “simple” (but wrong) beliefs about pain, psychological approaches are more expensive (though don’t offer better outcomes), daily life occupational therapy approaches are really hard to conduct as RCTs….
Hayden JA, Ellis J, Ogilvie R, Malmivaara A, van Tulder MW. Exercise therapy for chronic low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2021, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD009790. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009790.pub2. Accessed 18 December 2022.
To the question of “why do people keep doing exercise”. When I just started with physical therapy early on, with an (inaccurate) non-specific low back pain diagnosis, I have kept on doing my prescribed physio well over the year, even though I was deteriorating. This was a combination of “the doctor said it is necessary”, “the physical therapist says that I must do it exactly this way or I will be in pain forever” (that’s a precise quote, by the way) and my own beliefs about movement being good and pain being explained by physical weakness.
20 years on I am a lot more sceptical. I have had some very successful exercise programmes over the years and I will turn to physio when things go wrong. But I am a lot more willing to push back or stop because if I am not seeing improvements in pain and function in real life, then it’s not worth spending the time.
The power of obedience and social conditioning! And plausible explanations that might not be “wrong” but also might not be the complete explanation.
I’m glad you’ve moved towards seeing the effects and making decisions on that basis, and that it’s part of your daily life. Some people get so turned off by not seeing gains (especially when that’s the focus of so many therapists) that they don’t take the time to feel what it’s like to be moving. Intrinsic motivation comes, I think, from being in the moment and being present – even if it’s about gasping with your legs burning while going uphill!
Agreed. This reminds me that David Butler would also say that movement is great homuncular refreshment.